What do trees know about history? How about a banker’s box? A restored cast? These are the questions that Danielle Mericle asked in her exhibition “The Limiting Principle” hosted in Tjaden Gallery last week. Using only a few photographs plastered to the bare, white walls and a video projected onto the wall, Mericle challenged her audience to rethink its perception of history and whether we can ever truly access it. Mericle’s photos seem like they should take you back into the past, but instead they remain almost jarringly in the present. Mericle herself comments on this, claiming that photography itself “holds the promise of the past, while actually delivering very little.”
Mericle’s gallery explored the various ways we try to reach history as well as how events today will affect the perception of future generations. Close-ups of tree trunk cross-sections list the dates of different rings, marking them as a witness of the rise of Islam or the height of the Mayan empire. Shots of living trees remind us that their contemporaries still record today’s events. One academic banker’s box is slated for destruction, while another’s is not. A Greco-Roman cast has its arm restored to it. The video near the center of the room follows the work of a woman as she adds details to a statuette, giving the audience a glimpse into the workings of change itself, unlike the photographs that present a moment frozen in time. All of this makes one stop and wonder, what do the ways in which we view history really mean?
When first approached, Mericle’s work can seem confusing and jumbled. Close-ups of banker’s boxes next to photographs of a pine tree on one wall, with broken casts next to dated tree-rings on the other appear to have no connection at first glance. However, if you look closer, your eyes will begin to open as you stop and think about it: what does it mean for the future if one box of documents is lost forever and the other isn’t? Am I really getting an authentic experience of ancient Greece or Rome if that statue is a cast, and has even been restored? Does it not matter anyway if it looks like it should? How strange is it that that tree outside my bedroom could have lived through the Civil Rights movement, the World Wars, or even more? The photos pose questions upon questions, which you may never really find the answer to.
But that is part of Mericle’s point: “It’s this attempt (and often failure) to know that I find interesting and which keeps me engaged as an artist.” The attempt to understand each work keeps her viewers coming back as well, trying to understand the connection between each piece. Each pass of the photograph you have looked at three times already raises more questions, barely answering the ones that came before. It is through all of these questions, though, that Mericle hopes her audience will come to recognize how we look at the past as well as how we define ourselves.
Original Author: Fiona Modrak