Théo Mercier: The Sleeping Chapter | Conciergerie

On a rainy November’s morning in the dead centre of Paris, I experienced a show that can only be described as dreamy.

Théo Mercier is an artist I admire a lot - and have featured on here before. He works in a monumental register, in a humble way. He reflects on the ephemerality of things, the fragility of the present as we lose ourselves, inevitably, to the future.

In the last show of his I saw - in this city in 2017 - Mércier cast Classical-looking amphoras, busts and pillars in thin plaster, and set them at dangerously teetering angles. This time, he uses an even more easily-messed-up material: sand.

Théo Mercier: The Sleeping Chapter - installation view Image source: Sortir à Paris

Working with a team of sand sculptors, Mércier created mattresses, pillows and beds - the tools we use to get us to sleep. There’s the odd broken pillar too, to keep things consistent: this time, they’re the exact size of the chunky pillars that hold up the roof of this medieval hall. The sand was also selected to match the shade of the stone that surrounds it as closely as possible.

Watching over these ornaments are several dogs, sculpted in a slightly lighter sand, lying down at rest, but with their eyes open. Wafting around the hall is a spooky soundtrack of breaths and pulsations. Given that it was a weekday morning when I visited, and that most of my fellow tourists skip the Conciergerie in favour of the neighbouring Sainte-Chapelle, the hall was empty enough to maintain the illusion that I had entered dreamland, that I was surrounded by stillness.

Perhaps it’s a good thing more people haven’t come. These extremely fragile sculptures are totally unprotected from the circulating audience: no ropes, no buzzers, very few security staff. Inevitably, that’s meant that some of the sculptures - a corner of a mattress here, the tail of a dog there - are already damaged, the shaped sand exploded into dust. I’m sure that’s part of the point the artist’s trying to make. The state of sleep is fragile and delicate.

It’s also an exhibition that reflects its city centre surroundings, and not just because baked sand forms concrete. When talking about his aims for the show, part of a broader series called “Outremonde” (meaning “underworld”, or literally “out world”), Mércier says: “Being in the heart of Paris, a city that brings together all possible types of sleep, also makes the [Conciergerie] very mysterious and I wanted to talk about what these types of sleep say about our lives. Because talking about sleep is also talking about the city, a place of all possible dreams and nightmares.”

Exactly. Leaving the spectacularly hushed hall and entering the city that surrounds it felt to me like waking up, refreshed but also a bit perturbed by the things I’d seen, back in dreamland.

Théo Mercier: The Sleeping Chapter is at the Conciergerie (Paris). 14 October 2022 - 08 January 2023