Memory and the Politics of Place: Michael Mergen investigates the spaces where the ideals of the United States political system meet the mundane realities of participatory democracy. It is the first exhibition of Mergen’s work to examine seven of the photographer’s series together as a politically neutral study of Americans’ concepts of their country and its institutions. Mergen, an assistant professor of art/photography at Longwood, became fascinated by the political and civic nature of United States and its citizens when he worked as a photojournalist. Each of his series focuses on a different theme, such as voting, jury duty, and the memorialization of people, places and events. Although his subjects may initially seem disparate, all are anchored in transformation. In Mergen’s Vote series, the relatively banal spaces of our lives take on new relevance and power on election days, when private spaces transition into important public spaces in their role as polling precincts. Public space also becomes rather private in his Memorials to the War on Terror series, which features vignettes of roads and bridges named in memorial to soldiers killed in combat since September 11, 2001.
The exhibition also includes eight works from Mergen’s Selma and Lee’s Retreat series, which were recently given to the LCVA by Julia J. Norrell, a prolific and nationally respected collector of art related to the American south. Both the Selma and Lee’s Retreat series are comprised of direct wax rubbings on large-scale photographs, a technique Mergen employed to physically imbue the language of the historical markers that chronicle and memorialize the historic landscapes. “I moved to Farmville several years ago and this work is a direct response to my local landscape,” Mergen explains. “Both the Union and Confederate armies passed through here just two days before Lee surrendered, and it is impossible not to see the lasting impact the Civil War has had on this area.”
Memory and the Politics of Place is also is the first to showcase Mergen’s Confederate Heroes, Confederate Dead, an installation comprised of 68 of tightly focused photographs of sculptures of soldiers’ faces found in almost every Civil War monument in Virginia. The series continues his exploration of what Mergen describes as “the legacy of the Civil War that we often overlook right in our backyards," first studied in his Lee’s Retreat series. The photographs of the soldiers’ facing are striking—most overtly because many of the monuments were ordered from the same company and cast from the same mold. In various conditions, the monuments depict soldiers young and old, cavalry and infantry, and ask the viewer to re-examine unresolved issues with which the nation still grapples. The 2015 series also captured the attention of an editor at The New York Times Magazine, which published it in its entirety in its October 18, 2015 issue.
In addition to New York Times Magazine, Mergen’s work has been featured in Harper’s, Mother Jones, and Once magazines, as well as on Time magazine’s LightBox and Slate. He has exhibited nationally and internationally, and his work is held in several public and private collections.
The exhibition is complemented by Re:Viewing the Election, which features the work of students in Longwood’s ART 495: On the Campaign Trail and COMM 341: Advanced Media Writing classes led by Professor Michael Mergen and Professor Jeff Halliday.