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Interview with Mathieu Mercier
by Peter Dobey

Paris, Apr. 2012: The works of Mathieu Mercier walk a curious line between art and consumer object, often using mass-produced products as medium. By inhabiting this critical intersection, his pieces question the essence and cultural status of the art object in its ubiquitous relationship with consumer society and the legacy of modernism. With his show at Le Crédac coming down in less than a week, I asked Mercier some questions about the ontological nature of his work, and how it fits into the lineage of the ready-made and how we look at art....


Mathieu Mercier, untitled, 2012, Black lacquered steel, basketball hoops, 10 PVC spheres, electric system, 340 x 170 x 170 cm; Photo by André Morin / le Crédac, courtesy of the artist

Peter Dobey: Let's work backwards. From words to content. Why is the show called “sublimations”?

Mathieu Mercier: Sublimations means three things.  It was difficult for me to find the title because I am not good with titles. First, it is the name of the technique I used to make the pedestals. Its second meaning, in chemistry, is the process whereby an object or material changes from a solid to gas upon heating, with no intermediary liquid state. And the third thing is the Freudian one.

PD: So what exactly are these white pedestals?

MM: The prints are set in Corian. Its the material I used, which is a combination of resin and stone. It is often used in hospitals and kitchens for example. And what was important for these objects is that it makes the marks on the pedestal without any lines or traces of how it's done. The print is done in an oven and the ink goes inside of the material. Just like a tattoo. The pedestal is just one object. And this is quite important. And there is an object placed on top of it. It is 1 + 1. It is two objects.

PD: In fact, these pieces rely on a dialogue! Because people have to try to make connections! We instinctively want to find connections or make the two objects into one in our heads. But then we also want to recognize the ontology of the objects we already know. And I think you reinforce and reference this with the systems of measurement seen on the pedestals. It begs for the object to be defined. But it can’t quite be done.

MM: You start to make a connection between the object and the pattern, as if there is a game. You want to build your own stories. But in fact there are no stories! There are just two things. For example with the piece with the candle, this piece was in part inspired by Johannes Itten’s “The Elements Of Color”. This pattern of design he used for the color wheel that he did is very religious, even kabalistic, and connected to the candle it becomes obvious.

PD: So the more obvious symbolism of religion brought upon by the candle brings out the latent symbolism of Johannes Itten's color charts. And vice-versa, we also have a reaction to the shape of his charts; they are like a religious icon, next to the generic candle. There is a fusion of the chart with religion and mysticism by virtue of the juxtaposition of the two.

Mathieu Mercier, Sans titre (bougie/cerclechromatique de J. Itten), 2012, Bougie, sublimation sursocle en Corian 117,5 x 35 x 35 cm ; Photo : © André Morin / le Crédac, courtesy Mathieu Mercier

MM: All the pieces work like this; there is the object, and then there is the pattern, and there is this back and forth between them. Again, it’s just a situation in time between two objects. But suddenly, upon looking, the situation can reverse itself completely. Suddenly what you think of as an abstraction is taken as a pragmatic tool and what you think is an empirical object turns abstract.

PD: Yes, with the glass of water with the stick in it, I immediately saw a paintbrush in a jar of water, and the broken color wheel, a painter's palette. Maybe I saw this because I'm not a painter, because my friend remarked that a painter would never leave a brush like that. She, the painter, saw the black rod as a straw in a drink, and the broken color wheel as the children's game where you blow things around using a straw! Both stories are wrong, and yet both are right.

MM: Yes, people make the connection, for example, with the Pantone and sponge piece, between the golden ratio and the shell, and thus the sea.

PD: It’s a thinking process, a path. That goes from specific function towards abstraction. First you see the Pantone, then the nautilus, then the shell…

Mathieu Mercier, Sanstitre (éponge/nuancier), 2012; Courtesy of the artist.

MM: As a viewer, you can move from perceiving the pragmatic object, the technical one, to the physical object, to the aesthetic one, and that brings you to the psychological process. It is through these processes that we come to make up our own definition and classification of the objects. This is exactly the way you come to define reality through cognition. First, it's the scientific point you see, the technical point. And then the esthetic, experiential part. And then perhaps both are wrong. So people catch what they want.  But anyway [laughs] in fact it is their own paranoia anyway that make these stories! Its all very simple, really.

PD: You make art from plain products. Would you say you use the ready-made?

MM: I make collage I don't make ready-mades.

PD: Do you make a ready-made into a collage? Do you play with products?

MM: People think I make ready-mades. But they don’t work by themselves, so they are not ready-mades. That’s a subject I can talk about from my own definition of what a ready-made is: for you to take an object from its original context at the supermarket and to bring it to the art field without using it.

PD: Without using it the way it is supposed to be used, as a tool? As a functional, and thus non-art object?

MM: Yes, that’s one of my definitions.

PD: But you take these products and rearrange them into something else. You play with them.

MM: In fact, I create the possibility of cognitive association. Between the print on the pedestal and the object on the same pedestal. So it's absolutely not a ready-made because it's already a dialogue between two things. In which one is very graphic and the other is coming from reality. Actually all the prints come from different ways of measuring. Measurement systems, the pattern from the color chart, the…

PD: This one reminds me of the golden mean [ratio].

MM: Yes it comes from that, but also the color wheel. The Pantone scale, which printers use for graphic design and advertising, it’s a tool of a specific use.

PD: The Pantone is closer to a chemist's tool -- it aims for precision…Well then I agree they are not ready-mades, because they are part of a dialogue. Possibly a dialogoue ABOUT ready-mades. About the nature of such a thing and even how the ready-made is just a product itself! Nonetheless, the components of the pieces are objects in and of themselves and also the whole thing is an object. But by bringing these products out and rearranging them, playing with them, making something out of them, for me, what you're doing is very similar to the classical tradition of the artist. You make something beautiful out of basic materials.

Oh and to return to the third meaning of sublimations! That is, transforming libido into achievements -- that being an artist allows you to carve out your niche in society. To make your own reality. A completely subjective one!

MM: I don’t think the process was any different from 1000 years ago. I really believe this.

PD: You know, it would be easy for people to say you are a ready-made artist, a completely conceptual artist -- but for me you are invoking the classical mode of the artist, by inventing these art pieces using objects and making them your own.

MM: But you know the ready-made was just a discovery by Duchamp, not an invention.

Mathieu Mercier, Glad, 2003, carton d'emballage, 43 x 23 x23 cm;  Courtesy Galerie Une, Auvernier, switzerland

PD: People often make comparisons between Warhol and Duchamp. There was this idea in Warhol's time that anything could be art, but Warhol crafted the Brillo boxes and soup cans. You can actually see the hand of the artist. Yet it spawned an entire generation of artists who didn’t make anything themselves. In the manner of Duchamp's ready-made.

MM: Actually, Warhol dealt with all the classic aspects of art. It’s not that anything can be art, he proved the opposite in many ways. And in fact, Duchamp said the opposite. That we have to take care not to make too many ready-mades.

PD: I always say: to say anything can be art is to say that nothing is art.

MM: Well yes, it works both ways.

PD: Well then Duchamp made his discovery, and Warhol came from a classical narrative of the artist, but still these moments have changed fundamentally what we think of as art. The fundamental process of making art has stayed the same, but certainly the essence of art, what we know AS art, has changed over time. Do you think the ontology of art follows a historical narrative? For example, I think young artists now, especially in America, treat art as if it’s a product-making process more than ever, and don’t bother asking if its art or not.

MM: Again, I don’t think the process has changed much. It’s funny because I met Pascal Picq, the French paleoanthropologist. I asked him to write about the relationship or point of view of younger artists towards nature. But it didn’t work out because he pushed himself to write about art, but what I wanted was to bring a new energy to the art field, where all too often we are just turning around the same old references.

The same goes for science, it too needs a new energy. I started talking to him about early cave paintings, especially Lascaux. I actually told him that next time, don’t bring scientists. Bring an artist who doesn’t know anything about prehistorical paintings but can just think about the process. It completely changes your point of perspective. And so there were many things like this I saw from looking at the stupid replicas and…

PD: WHAT? Replicas!?

MM: Yes they made these silly replicas in France because the real cave had grown a kind of mushroom from people's breath, and other aspects were destroying the cave.

PD: Wow, but yes I think the artist, the psychoanalyst, the scientist sees things differently because of the pedagogies behind them. And that by segregating into fields we cut off entire domains of knowledge, or discovery. Just as in Philosophy and Art and Psychology and Religion, we miss out on a lot by separating them. We miss a lot of discoveries.

MM: That's exactly what I said about the ready-mades, is that it was just a discovery. There were probably many things we did not consider because they were not changed by humans. For example, with the cave paintings we believe they have a very strong relationship to religion because there is this perception that they were done by only one man. When this is absolutely not the case! And of course we think of them as being only in the cave, but there was probably just as many paintings outside, but we did not discover them because only the dark cave kept them intact. The elements and even the light of day would destroy them otherwise.

PD: There are also findings that suggest they did them in special places for unique shamanistic reasons or functions.

MM: Yes there were probably very strong religious beliefs in these worlds. But once again you see, exactly like today. We have our beliefs too.

PD: But also the cave had other special attributes. But maybe we concentrate too much on this?

MM: Just the way the scientists tried to make the interpretations of why and how they made the paintings. When we look we see that most of the drawings were done on the convex and concave of the caves interior.

PD: They used the shape of the rocks to come up with the animal depictions.

MM: Yes, but perhaps it wasn’t so much that they USED the shape of the rocks but that the shapes of the rocks would in fact inspire you to draw the shape of an animal just so. And if you think about the time, that the place was dark, working with only a torch, you can imagine that much of the way the animals were depicted was just a product of these working conditions. And walking around the curves of the cave, with the flickering of the light – if you just go and EXPERIENCE these caves, you see that they were doing cartoons more than they were doing paintings!

And there are many things like this that drive me crazy! How the scientists try to explain things. They try to explain why the paintings are as they are as a whole, but if you are working with only a torch you only see one part, and so it doesn’t make sense to look at it the way it's photographed now because that’s not how you would have seen it. You would have only seen one aspect at a time when they were made.

And there are many things like this that they try to find explanations for. Like the design of the animals. It had to do with the conditions of their knowledge. I mean before Muybridge we had no idea how animals moved. So you can imagine at the time of the cave paintings there was no way to picture them except for when they were dead. And when the animal is dead it’s on its side and it has a huge belly and very small legs. And it explains the aesthetic of the drawing.

PD: Like when children draw a house. With a square and a triangle. Even though it does not reflect reality. It’s what and how they know.

MM: And many of these observations we are making are very obvious I think, but they get completely overlooked by the scientific method.

I don’t say that I have the truth, I am just saying that sometimes the scientific approach of the history of art, and all its definitions, it makes completely wrong sense. It makes no sense at all sometimes and let's us know even less!

PD: And we know that all depictions lie and are stereotypes. Like when we see a children's book. A cow doesn’t actually look like that. But it's not wrong. Its still what we think of as a cow.

MM: That’s funny because in these works at Le Crédac, all the objects are like stereotypes of themselves. I didn’t want to talk at all about the design of the objects or to present any nostalgia. So all the objects are like logos or stereotypes of the objects themselves. If you picture these objects in a dictionary -- that’s them. The bananas. They are real bananas. That is THE goldfish bowl you would imagine. If you draw a is THAT candle.

Mathieu Mercier, Au premier plan : Sans titre (vase/disque chromatique), 2011-2012, Vase, plexiglas, eau, sublimation sur socle en Corian, 120 x 60 x 60 cm; Photo : © André Morin / le Crédac, courtesy Mathieu Mercier

Peter Dobey

ArtSlant would like to thank Mathieu Mercier for his assistance in making this interview possible.

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