His peculiar enthusiasm began in Penang, Malaysia, where in a run-down petrol station he spotted a scale bust of Liberty. Rain-stained and harnessed to a string of fairy lights, in the picture it appears to be precariously propped up on stilts. "At that time, I had no idea of the strange path I had just begun," Merts writes in the notes that accompany his pictures. But back home a few months later, wandering past a second-hand furniture store, he came across a human-sized Liberty among the piles of junk. Things escalated soon afterwards, when he came clean to friends and acquaintances, who now obligingly report back whenever they spot a new replica.
"I wasn't a particular fan of it originally," Merts says of the statue. "I've had time to think about it and become quite fond of it. What interests me most is the variety of situations in which it can be found. For advertising outside bars and restaurants, in parks to symbolise freedom. But sometimes it's there for some incomprehensible reason - like the one I found on top of a warehouse in Taipei."
Now he spends his holidays searching for new copies to photograph, both overseas and in the States. Fifty years ago, the Boy Scouts of America launched their "Strengthen the Arm of Liberty" campaign: local scouting groups in 39 states raised money to put up 8ft-tall replicas of the statue in their counties. Within three years, 195 new statues had been erected, a good many of which were in the Midwest. So in 1997 Merts packed his bags and embarked on a tour of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, driving from Liberty replica to Liberty replica. After 10 days he had amassed pictures of 34 scout-funded statues to add to his collection.
It may be an icon everywhere else, the most recognised secular symbol in the world, but in these small towns in Middle America, where the Forties' boy scouts busied themselves painting picket fences and making lemonade, the Statue of Liberty has become a safe, recurring motif. In Merts' photographs, the replicas appear as intimate as the original is imposing - so familiar, to the children who since the Fifties had grown up with them, that they must have faded into the landscape. Merts tells of an encounter he had in Oneonta, upstate New York. While he was photo-graphing the town's Liberty statue, on whose crown some bored youth had skewered a couple of apples, a woman stopped to watch him. She grew up here, she told him, and for many years had thought that this Liberty was the Liberty. "Whenever I heard on the radio or read something about the Statue of Liberty," she said, as Merts squinted through the lens, "I always thought they meant this one, the one in Oneonta."
"The statue does not record the past, except for the allusion to the Declaration of Independence [its date is inscribed on the tablet Liberty holds]," Marina Warner writes in her book Monuments and Maidens: the allegory of the female form. "It anticipates continuously a future that is always in the process of becoming: hence Liberty's determined step forward, her lamp held up to illuminate the space we cannot see, the time to come." She continues: "It is becoming harder to use Liberty for serious causes without irony ... she provides a benchmark of an ideal few people still believe has been upheld or will ever be fulfilled."
Perhaps it is because of this sense of empty gesture and dissociation from the past that liberties can be taken with Liberty. Marina Warner remarks on the schoolchildren's graffiti scrawled inside the actual monument: "Disparagement," she notes, "is a kind of appropriation." Similarly, fruit can be impaled on the statue's spikes and her torch replaced with a Mr Whippy ice cream. When Merts went to photograph the replica that stands within the grounds of a high school in Coffeyville, Kansas, he found that someone had taken a Magic Marker and added lipstick, eyebrows and underarm hair. And Hollywood has employed Liberty as a gigantic prop again and again, though her treatment has become harsher with time. Take Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942), where the villain plummets to his death from the torch; then take Independence Day (1996), in which Liberty is zapped by aliens, her severed head landing eyeballs-skyward in the Hudson Bay.
Merts says that the statue has such wide appeal because it has so many alternative associations, most obviously "a concept, a city, and a country". To most of the world, Liberty, along with hot dogs and baseball, signifies material America, which ensures that her image never becomes outdated. The best- known recent example of the statue being used to express an ideal was in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when students paraded their "Goddess of Democracy". Though modelled on the Statue of Liberty, this one had different features and was crownless, and she represented a Chinese take on the American adaptation of the French idea of Liberte. (Incidentally, only 10 years on, it is now impossible to imagine Chinese students appropriating the symbol for the same ends.)
"We can all take up occupation of Liberty, male, female, aged, children, she waits to enfold us in her meaning," writes Warner, drawing a modern parallel with the early image of the statue welcoming America's immigrants. She partly attributes the Statue of Liberty's universality as a symbol to its diverse origins. It was proposed as a gift from France to America in the 1870s to indicate republican solidarity, and was created by the French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, who modelled the face on his mother's. The internal structure was created by Gustav Eiffel, and the pedestal, designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt, was constructed after Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the World newpaper, launched a public campaign to raise money for it. In 1883, Emma Lazarus was inspired by Russian immigrants escaping the pogroms to write the poem which was later inscribed on the pedestal ("Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."), in which she named the statue the "Mother of Exiles". Liberty was finally unveiled in 1886.
Marina Warner's dispassionate assessment of the statue is that it is "remarkably hideous", but that what it lacks in beauty it more than makes up for in size: its "materialisation of the ideal gains its energy entirely from its enormousness, its boggling hugeness". "I think it's beautiful," Peter Merts protests. "I went to Bartholdi's home in Alsace, which is now a museum, and there were some of his earlier models for Liberty, in different poses and without the crown, and it seemed the image he chose was by far the most power-ful. The crown adds such a uniqueness to her profile."
In any case, the statue is rarely considered as art; it has moved far beyond that, as Merts' photographs demonstrate. In a few of the pictures - picked out in lights on the awning of a fast-food restaurant in Amsterdam, for example, or standing on a platform in the middle of a pond in "Minimundus", Austria - the statue is just a reference to America. In others, particularly those taken in America, the statue seems to absorb the atmosphere of her environs: louche and rebellious in San Francisco; military and brutal in an assortment of materials in McRae, Georgia; puritanical, flanked by white plaster cherubs, in St John's County in rural Florida.
As far as Merts is concerned, there is one gaping hole in his collection. A couple of years ago, he was dressing for work with the television on in the background. "A report came on about the preparations for the Sapporo Winter Ice Festival in Japan, and they'd made a huge ice sculpture of Liberty. I actually considered calling work and hopping on a plane there and then." He sighs. "It would have looked so beautiful with the sunlight shining on it." 2
Lego monument in Berkeley, California On top of a warehouse in Taipei, Republic of China
In a petrol station in Penang, Malaysia. This was the first Statue of Liberty image in Merts' collection
This Liberty was created from wood and styrofoam by the members of the Lions Club in McRae, Georgia. The club's Ray Bowers said, `We never knew it would be so pretty'
This Liberty, which usually stands on the Ile des Cygnes, Paris, was loaned to Japan for a year. It was photographed in Tokyo
On the awning of a fast-food restaurant in Amsterdam
A replica on a boy-scout reservation in Iconium, Missouri
A Liberty copy in the How Par Villa sculpture garden, Singapore. It is the only statue of Western origin to be represented in the park San Francisco, California
Photographed near a grain silo in Thayer, Kansas, this replica was for sale in Harm's Barn, `a roadside emporium selling exotic garden ornaments'
A scout-funded replica in a park in Agana, Guam, where there used to be an American naval base
Lesbos, Greece. The statue was erected to commemorate the island's liberation after 500 years of Turkish rule Presiding over a funerary sales lot in St John's County, Florida
Over the old American-controlled gate at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, this statue was to mark reunification
Embellished with lipstick and eyebrows in Coffeyville, Kansas
A scout replica in front of the old railway station in Beatrice, Nebraska