April 22, 2016

R. Mertens – Weaving Together the Past, Present, and Future

written by Evan Odoms, AAC Marketing Intern

R. Mertens, No-thing ever really transcends its Immediate, (Detail), Cassette tape, Fluorescent Lights, plastic mold, Electrical wire, crochet, vacuum plastic form molding; 7’ x 18” x 1’, 2015
R. Mertens, No-thing ever really transcends its Immediate, (detail)

We recently opened our Spring SOLOS 2016 exhibition kicking it off with a well-attended reception.

Visitors had a chance to meet and mingle with the show’s rising artists, but if you missed it, stay tuned to our blog and we’ll introduce you to each of them!

One such rising artist, whose immersive exhibition Paradoxical Acousmêtre is experienced on the lower level of AAC, is R. Mertens.

We caught up with him to learn more about his show, his process, and his vision.

Using a combination of fiber, sound, and performance art ephemera in his installation, R. Mertens literally and figuratively takes on the past, present, and future by using outmoded electronic materials to create organic objects.

Inspired by classic 80s post-apocalyptic films, as well as Postmodernism and Post-structuralism, Mertens makes connections on how humans adapt to their changing environments.  His work becomes an archival representation of the way technology has evolved and transformed over the years.

During our interview I was fortunate enough to observe Mertens while he was installing his work.

When I walked into the Truland Gallery, he was on a ladder attending to what appeared to be a massive bonfire of electronic material and animal fur, the structure wispily gathering up toward the ceiling.

R. Mertens, Monument to Repetition (19), (Detail), 9-track data tape warp and weft, fluorescent lights, speakers audio from a manipulated interview with Rachel Rosenthal and audio of a Suzanne Venker discussion of her book the Flipside, Double cloth tabby weave, Size variable, 2015
R. Mertens, Monument to Repetition (19), (detail)

I spun around in circles looking at the cocoon-like sculptures of woven tape dangling from the ceiling and throughout the gallery.

At first glance you may not realize that Mertens’ work is created from audio cassette and VHS tape woven into shapes and forms using techniques he learned from both traditional weavers and fellow artists.

He credits Oregon-based artist Barbara Setsu-Pickett, “a master silk weaver and Jacquard weaver,” for teaching him weaving skills. He further developed his weaving skills with the help of sound artist Brandon LaBelle.

Mertens also studied traditional techniques like backstrap weaving by traveling to Peru, following in the footsteps of his art heroines Shelia Hicks and Lenore Tawny.

Learning these traditional art forms influenced more than just his work. Mertens explains, much like the process of weaving or crocheting, his process is modular.

“I break my installations down into parts that can then be reassembled as an exhibition.” This allows him to work in a a pluralistic mode, in this way he can think about his work both as large-scale installation and as distinct individual pieces, which helps him move beyond the original idea.

I switched to fibers, not because of fear, but in thinking about physical archives and information loss

As a self-proclaimed impatient artist, my first thought when looking at his intricate weaving, was, how long does it take to create these sculptures?! Turns out it depends on the materials and the installation.

Mertens says that the installation he created for AAC’s Spring SOLOS took a year to finalize. Certain works, like his felt cut piece which is made from hand-cultivated wool, were more laborious than others.

To make this work he, “first repeatedly washed the wool to remove the vegetable matter and lanoline, and then hand carded the wool before drum carding it.” This process resulted in sheets of raw wool, which Mertens then fed through an industrial needle felting machine, then washed and dried it before loading the wool into a laser cutter.

in R. Mertens exhibition. Photo by Kate Ingram
in R. Mertens exhibition. Photo by Kate Ingram

When it comes to the electronic components, Mertens developed a taste for tape while interning at the Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago. One of his responsibilities was to manually update old files into a new system, which meant recording audio from a cassette to computer hard drives.

R. Mertens, Hi-Fi Shrine, Detail, VHS tape, speaker wire, conduit, Ethernet cable, twill weave, macramé, beading, crochet; 6’x 3’x 1’, 2012
R. Mertens, Hi-Fi Shrine, (detail), VHS tape, speaker wire, conduit, Ethernet cable, twill weave, macramé, beading, crochet

He reflects on how the experience was distressing, but also important to the progress of his work: “This was a terrifying job to me, playing old cassettes of Sun Ra’s extremely rare home rehearsals praying the tape deck doesn’t eat it up before getting it into zeros and ones.

This was pretty formative to why I switched to fibers, not because of fear, but in thinking about physical archives and information loss.”

Mertens’ work has become a historical backdrop for the evolution of technology. What we consider old or even obsolete, Mertens finds another function for in his work.

Since a lot of the materials he uses are now considered outdated, I asked him where he finds most of his materials. “Donation,” he says and also thrifting.

He was never into thrifting until he moved to Oregon where they have a great selection of vintage and thrift stores where he came across some pretty cool stuff like magnetic tape from institutions that are updating or digitizing their archives.

Artist often reflect the times they live in. Currently, we’re living in the digital age where technology is rapidly changing and advancing with the swipe of your finger.  It will be interesting to observe the continued evolution of humanity, and thus art, as technology advances.

Now that you know a little more about his work, come by and experience Mertens’ exhibition in our Truland Gallery on the Lower Level. While you’re here, check out the shows by Mertens’ SOLOS cohort, and visit our Jenkins Community Gallery on the Lower Level and our Wyatt Resident Artists Gallery on the Upper Level.
Our galleries are always free and open to the public Wednesday – Sunday, 12 pm – 5 pm. AAC is located at 3550 Wilson Blvd, across the street from the Virginia Square Metro. Mark your calendars for a gallery talk and closing reception on June 4. Together we’ll walk and talk our way through each of the SOLOS shows.

Golden: Fifty Years of New Classics

UPCOMING: Opens June 15, 2024

Curated by Al Miner

Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington is proud to present Golden: Fifty Years of New Classics, an exhibition celebrating the organization’s 50th anniversary.

Summer Camp Registration

June 17 – August 16

Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington offers a wonderful and wide range of creative summer camps for your creative students! Camps are offered for kids starting at age 5 and up to teens ages 18.

Zaq Landsberg: Reclining Liberty

August 5, 2023 - July 28, 2024

Front Lawn
MoCA Arlington and Arlington Public Art are thrilled to co-sponsor the installation of Zaq Landsberg’s celebrated Reclining Liberty on the Museum’s front lawn.