Paris, 13 February 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).
After infiltrating the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and taking part in the Salon de Montrouge last year, Combo has taken over the walls of Hong Kong with enlarged Google pages (3 x 4), banned in China. Is he an activist? No, Combo only wishes to speak and express himself as a citizen-artist. AMA met with him on occasion of the exhibition of his latest works at the Republic Gallery, Paris, on display through 2 March.
How did you elaborate this work about China you present at the Republic Gallery?
I always start from a statement: here, the ban put on some Google pages in China. This was important to me, for the topic is always talked about, but never really discussed. When a State prevents freedom of expression on the Internet, the only way to speak remains the street, and I wanted to be useful with the few means at my disposal. I began selecting those banned Google pages (with screen captures enlarged to 3 x 4 posters). Hong Kong was the city that best suited this action: close to the West but no too much, closed and open at the same time.
How did you choose the place where to put the posters? How did you cope with authorities?
My concerns were twofold: will people accept my work or denounce me to the police? I knew Hong Kong was one of the most secured and watched cities worldwide. Everything went well, people were rather receptive, but I took great care to avoid being seen by the police. I don’t know if I would have been jailed, maybe a few days; it is all very touchy, for there is something political about my work here.
You did not test it anyway. This fear, this sword of Damocles, is it part of the game?
I believe that creating art implies a risk, both aesthetical and physical. When one creates Street Art, one has to take a physical risk: it’s the street, not a studio, the act is risky and fast. Doing it right to the end might well earn you prison!
Why adding this political dimension to your work?
For me, creating Street Art is a commitment in itself. To go in the street is to commit yourself in a public space you re-appropriate, this is a way to hold a bit of power. For me, one mustn’t seek mere symbols, one must be political.
Are you an outsider, using art as means of political expression?
I believe there are many of us, but we do not all put it the same way. It seems rather normal Ai Weiwei should do what he actually does.
Among Street artists it appears this political dimension is not always that important, and even in the street, they first and foremost want to create art.
What is complicated when you work with a gallery is that selling a painting is political. People do not necessarily want to share this at home, to confront their friends with their opinions. People get smoother, but I try to remain faithful to what I do in the street, by transposing a message. This is our identity and we shouldn’t lose it.
How many posters did you put in Hong Kong?
I put seven posters, I could not put more, for I took them with me, I would not have them printed there through a contractor, in a discretion concern. I cut them in small pieces, which I gathered there, in order to escape the customs.
Did the installation take long?
There was an intermediary step at home to re-assemble the posters in bands, each poster being composed of three bands 1 meter-large.
How did the passers-by react?
I saw people’s reactions when I pasted the posters. I returned afterwards, and I knew many of them were snatched very soon, after two or three days, but it is the same in Paris, it is part of the game! For the poster with a cat giving the finger, there was a gathering, I worried, and when I turned back they smiled at me; I don’t know if they really understood it.
Are photographs so important to keep record of your actions? How many specimens do you produce?
Yes, photographs are like witnesses. I have them printed in 10 specimens each, and they are sold for €350.
What is the bond between your painting work and live action in the street?
For me, the message is essential, not the technique. I can go from one medium to another: painting, stencil, graffiti, photography… The essential is to convey a message, I care for the meaning, and this is how you see a bond between the works. What’s important to me is not to have done this, to have hit right in the middle: I care for the Chinese who struggle. Opposition movements are being created, for instance a trade union was recently established at Foxcom, Apple’s subcontractor. Things are moving and it is not always known, for China is an immense country. I felt it was important to speak about it.
Your paintings include Western brand logos, Apple, Chanel, Vuitton… on Communist posters. Do you start with real posters?
For instance, there were posters where the characters brandished Mao’s little red book, and I wanted to create a paradoxical picture by transforming this book into an iPhone. This image expresses a real paradox between hyper-capitalistic China – where everyone has an iPhone – and the communist regime, a rather absurd association. Under the paintings you have golden barbed wire: you are on the Golden Shield. You can get close, but not touch them, and this is what I felt in China: things are accessible, and yet they are not. A barbed wire is ambivalent and ironic; it is attractive and prickly at the same time!
Did you meet artists with the same approach, there?
Street artists do not leave direct political messages, this could be much too dangerous for them. When Ai Weiwei was arrested, 130 other people were arrested as well, and no one even mentioned it. Here Street artists convey more global messages, for a fresh start, for a more open society, but they do not precise. I met some of them, they told me how it goes with the population, the police, and it sounds rather like what I see here, in Switzerland, Ukraine, in the United States: we belong to a milieu much highlighted by the media right now, but still very fringe, and when there are problems, people really get into trouble: they got arrested, fined…
Even though the media covers the movement, when a policeman sees an artist in the street, he sees a delinquent and not an artist. How much is the fine for this today?
In France, the fine is rather moderate: it must be €5,000 for pasting, and it’s more expensive for graffiti: over €10,000. In France, one can be sent to jail for a simple graffiti, but as it is it happens very rarely. I was put in custody and judged many times. I began with graffiti, so there was a time when I was often arrested. This remains a crime! And it is disturbing. People are outraged, shocked, and even gallery owners sometimes. I once pasted next to the Galerie Perrotin, and the owners came and threatened to call the police, while they exhibit JR, Kaws… They like Street Art in a drawing room or a gallery, but not when it overflows limits. And this is precisely our essential issue: limits must be overflowed, this is our identity!
What is your view on Street Art’s leaving the street and entering galleries? Is there a loss of expression, of strength?
Actually there is no loss of expression. Artists grow up, they grow older, and they cannot afford to take risks anymore. If fame catches them up, all the better for them! For our society and for art, there will always be an angry generation, willing to pick up the torch, to express itself. We are the third generation, after Jeff Areosol, after Bansky, we are the latest arrived, therefore the more excited. But when we grow old there will be younger artists to stand in our place!
You speak of excitement, of irritation. Is this rage an important motor?
It is the rage of youth! We really need to express ourselves, to say what we feel, what we think, and if we don’t, we are not ourselves, we could die of it!
Is Street Art specifically linked with this need of expression?
I think it is a way to say things differently. The painter whispers and the Street artist shouts, that is why it causes so much talk: you’ll more hear a shout than a whisper. This feeling is bigger than us, and we just surpass it.
Do you feel the same satisfaction with a gallery exhibition than with street poster pasting?
Both are complementary, for posters last two days, and there must be something after, in order to discuss with people, and this is how you get pleasure, when everything is done. If there was only one element or the other, it would not be complete. One cannot exist without the other. In gallery, you have the opportunity to stage things differently. Here, this barbed wire is meaningful, and it is something you couldn’t do in the street, so it opens another door to expression! You are able to speak more deeply, more thoroughly. You just begin to speak in the street, and finish in the gallery.
Are your choices instinctive?
I am not instinctive at all, I work a lot beforehand, first on the message, I make thorough research, I try, and then I take the chance. Before this work in China, I undertook a six-month preparation, which is “abnormal” for Street Art: you just take your poster and paste it: two days!
Do you have projects on the go?
Indeed, but I will not speak about it, or else it would ruin them!
Is there anything else really important in your approach?
If only one person out of 1,000 or 2,000 passing by is touched by what I say, and feels concerned to the point of acting, this is a human victory form, for art is indeed trying to communicate a feeling!
What does your name refer to?
When one says “Combo”, one really thinks of succession, of so many things blending, and this is what characterises me since I began graffiti: several universes mixing. It is my Apache warrior name! In our society where our names are imposed to us, it is important to choose yourself a name, to recreate your humanity!