Peter De Meyer
The logic of losing one’s way
Peter De Meyer (1981) has enchanted me. He has a gentle, persistent way of being. He is also a handsome man. We were sitting in a little office floating above a gigantic hangar where a theatre company sometimes builds sets and which De Meyer uses to assemble his sculptures. There was no heating, and the cold was barely tempered by a buzzing fan heater. There was no water, because the pipes were leaking. But we still drank decaffeinated coffee. And there were biscuits. Together we looked at several pictures on a laptop and a few sculptures in the hangar. We also had a look at the ‘Patricia’, a lighter moored a few metres away. ‘Every Tuesday Patricia hangs out the washing,’ says the artist. ‘It flaps about above the boat. Always in the same order. Each sort of garment has its own place. Very odd.’ When I left the hangar after our talk and got rather stiffly into my modest vehicle, all at once I thought of the dandy Beau Brummel. What would he have made of the taming of the garments that is carried out on the ‘Patricia’ every week?
In 1977 the Italian author Giorgio Agamben wrote about the dandy as someone who never stumbled. In the nineteenth century, he wrote, the first utility objects made in factories appeared; they did not fit well and seemed to lead a wilful, independent life of their own. Caricatures showed the first umbrellas flapping upwards and the first embarrassed gentlemen wrestling with long boots which always folded in the wrong direction. Now the dandy is someone who is able to navigate between these peculiar objects with no trouble. He or she is able to neutralise their resistance. His umbrellas and his boots obey him. In this way the dandy is able to call a form of almost measurable grace into being. He shows that the solution is in the offing. He relates to others the way so-called perfect parents relate to their increasingly floundering children. The price he pays for this is that of uniqueness and solitude. His superhuman powers put him beyond the realm of normal men. His power over things appears to derive from a sort of detachment, a sort of irony, which makes other people uncomfortable.
In Peter De Meyer’s work, this irony takes the form of, among other things, sculptural inversions and awkward encounters between two objects. The frame of a painting, for example, usually acts as the window that creates the illusion of a view. In this case the opening through which one would look is closed with a plastic roller blind. The straps of feather-light toe slippers are cemented into a concrete floor so that the wearer can only walk by lifting up the whole building or even the whole world. A caravan promising freedom and shelter becomes a defenceless skeleton or a cage. The readable side of an illuminated sign is turned to the wall and gives rise to a nameless shape that is called Sub. In addition to these inversions we find utility objects that have undergone a small modification: a buck (the gym apparatus) lying with its legs crossed, a drum with protruding skins, an unpicked leather football and a brand name in big letters whereby the new arrangement of the letters looks like a model of a maze.
De Meyer approaches his work like a sculptor. This is how the work Bull’s Eye came about, by unwinding a dartboard until all that was left was the middle. It turned out that dartboards are made of strips of paper wound around a core. In a comparable way, but in reverse, the artist Michel François made several variations on the disc-shaped sculpture Cycle by winding strips of paper around a core. However, the fascinating thing about the sculptural inversions we come across in De Meyer’s work is that they are the result of training not as a sculptor, but as a furnituremaker. This is probably why he also makes us think of Agamben. He usually starts out from an object, which he then subjects to a change. This method is undoubtedly a reaction to a way of thinking in which function and ornament are still experienced as incompatible and in which young people are educated to reconcile the two aspects of utility objects with each other: pieces of furniture have to be ‘ergonomic’ and cars ‘streamlined’. One superb piece of work that resulted from this in Peter De Meyer’s previous life was a table that has two modernist rectangular legs on one side and on the other two turned (on a lathe) legs which emerge above the table top looking like traditional salt and pepper mills.
One of De Meyer’s present intentions is to use an electric cooker to burn four circles in the wall of an exhibition space. This is reminiscent of a work called In Between, which consists of a ruler whose middle section has been burnt away. The artist is gradually distancing himself from an educational course in which creation was equated to inventions and gimmicks, and is gaining admittance to a subterranean world which resides within him too and which sometimes makes its way to the surface, for example in the form of a cavity. On the one side there is the fine appearance of the virginal LP record, without a hole, and on the other the barely concealed gaping darkness of the hollowed-out painting frame, which hides behind a gleaming roller blind. On the one side we find the strip with self-adhesive red dots, one of which has been taken off and stuck next to it, and on the other we find the blind eye of the lifebuoy from the underworld.
When the strolling voyeur Duchamp bought a snow-shovel in New York in 1914, he was the first artist to notice that too many objects seemed to have come into the world. Objects had previously only been made to order. There were never too many. But in the early twentieth century they were displayed in shop windows. Anyone walking down a busy shopping street could look at thousands of surplus, waiting objects, which as a result of this odd, unprotected waiting became somewhat defenceless, as if they had been dehumanised. Now, a hundred years later, we make the acquaintance of an artist who creates work using uprooted objects.
‘My work is based on collective knowledge. People know what things are, and attach meaning to them. If you then change or move one of these objects, it appears to take on a new and surprising meaning. What I find exciting about this is that people recognise a lifebuoy just as much from the decoration of a Greek restaurant as from a boat. Objects sometimes already have some strange moves behind them, though we aren’t always aware of it. I used to make works mainly with objects that had ended up with me by chance, but after a time I no longer wanted to be dependent on my intake. Nowadays, with eBay, you can find any object you like. And anyway, a work does not start with the object used, but with my eye. I am a voyeur, someone who looks at the world and reports on what he sees. That’s how a work like Parallels came into being. It starts with an authentic plank with hooks that used to be used to hang up tools. I project onto it small objects like a cable fastener and a bolt, which I lay on an overhead projector. The projector enlarges their silhouette and they then look like the absent tools (e.g. a hook with a screw thread will look like a saw). This gives rise to a dreamlike confusion that results in part from our distorted expectations.
My studio is filled with hundreds of objects. I like looking at junk, probably because all of it consists of objects that have become lost and for mysterious reasons have met each other. I like the patina of these objects, because it tells us something about the course of their lives, and also the traces of repeated actions, such as the dirty patch around a lightswitch. At the same time I like the logic embedded in the actions of craftsmen. After all, part of their craft consists of knowing which order they have to tackle things in. Everything appears to have a time and a place. In my work I try to apply this sort of secret logic to lost objects. I try to place them in a new logic or to enrich them by giving them a fictional life, which in fact gives rise to a new object, a new image or a new story.’
Peter De Meyer
Peter De Meyer (Antwerp, Belgium, 1981) is a close observer of his daily environment. He examines objects to place them in an unexpected context or to subtly anatomize and transform them. With these minimal interventions he tries to produce a maximal effect. The result of these delocalizations and deformations is sober, but never easy. It plays with the idea that used objects carry a long history and evoke a range of associations, both in the individual and collective memory. In this way it refers to the idea of transitoriness. In addition to this, it distorts the familiar relationship between subject and object and invites the spectators to look and experience differently.