Sitting at a table in the Pause Café, near the Bastille, a rather average-looking Frenchman in his early 40s, dressed in jeans, a sweater and tennis shoes, spoke animatedly about his artistic career over a glass of menthe à l’eau. A great many Parisians would instantly recognize his work—one example was on the wall in the café—but no one took any notice of him. His face is unrecognizable, and for good reason: in media appearances he always wears a mask, and for years now he’s been known only by his pseudonym— Invader.
“In 1996, I was a budding young artist, looking for my way and experimenting with a number of forms, and one of these different experiments was a mosaic image of a Space Invader,” he says. The 1980s video game character, depicted with simple ceramic bathroom tiles, would take on meaning for him only later, long after he cemented that first tile image to an alley wall a few blocks from the Pause Café. “I didn’t realize at first the importance of the action. It took me almost two years to realize that, in putting this Space Invader in the street, I’d materialized the digital pixel through the mosaic. It was like a revelation. I said, here is one Space Invader—I have invaded a little piece of Parisian space, and now I should continue to invade the rest of Paris.”
And he did. In 2011, an exhibition celebrated the 1,000th Invader mosaic to grace the Parisian cityscape. But Paris is only one piece of the worldwide project Invader has undertaken. His mosaics of Space Invaders— and other iconic game characters including Pac-Man and Super Mario—turn up on every habitable continent in the world. He has “invaded” the Eiffel Tower, the giant letters of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles and the Great Wall of China. In 2000, he even invaded French President Jacques Chirac’s lapel, with a slyly placed Space Invader sticker during a random meeting at Paris’s FIAC art fair.
Featured in Exit Through The Gift Shop, the 2010 film by the infamous UK street artist Banksy, Invader is considered a pioneer of the international street-art scene, his work lauded as a brilliantly low-tech critique of the information era and the saturation of modern life by digital technology. “Alias” replicas of his street mosaics, along with his studio works, today sell at auction houses for thousands of euros. His limited-edition Invasion guides and maps, which meticulously document his works in each city, are coveted collectables.
With his growing art world recognition (and his middle-aged limbs no longer quite as adept at clambering up building facades in the dark of night), no one could blame him for wanting to rest on his laurels a bit, but so far that seems unlikely. “The word vacation hasn’t existed in my vocabulary for 15 years now—vacations have become invasions,” he says. “As an artist, I really believe in the idea of throwing yourself entirely into a project, and making it your life.”
Today, Invader seems determined to dip ever deeper into his creative well. In recent years he has developed “Rubikcubism”— manipulating and stacking Rubik’s Cubes to create not only 3-D Space Invaders, but also images of the Dalai Lama, the Mona Lisa and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Grande Odalisque. More recently he developed the first digitally interactive street art: using QR-code technology, he uses tiles to create mosaics that can be scanned with a cell-phone app to reveal an encrypted message. And he continues his “invasions” around the world, with each project seemingly more audacious than the last. Take his most recent missions, in 2012, starting with the invasion of Miami in advance of his December solo show at Art Basel Miami Beach. Just as he had already done in more than 40 other cities— including New York, Tokyo, Kathmandu and Mombasa—Invader placed one-of-akind mosaics in many highly visible spots, including the South Beach boardwalk, Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant and the Miami Children’s Museum.
Next, he headed south, to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, for his first underwater conquest, collaborating with artist Jason deCaires Taylor, whose underwater sculptural “coral reefs” in the bay of Cancun now sport Space Invader mosaics. And then he launched his most ambitious project to date. On August 20, 2012, he sent his mosaic Space One into the stratosphere aboard a special device incorporating a weather balloon equipped with a camera. The device then plummeted back to Earth, bringing with it a series of images of the mosaic overlooking the planet. The images were compiled into a documentary film about the Art4Space project, which premiered during his Miami exhibition. “After 15 years of dispersing Space Invaders around the planet, it was high time I sent one to—or rather back to—space,” he says.
Giant leap forward
With such projects, Invader blurs the lines between street, installation, performance and conceptual art. If his work has worldwide import, it’s largely thanks to the potent symbol he chose in Space Invader. It may be a crude, first-generation computer image, composed of the most basic pixels, but—since Space Invaders was the first internationally successful arcade game—it’s also one of the most recognizable video-game characters ever created. “Digital technology—video games, computers, Internet—was really an enormous leap forward in the history of mankind,” says Invader. “Space Invaders are 30-some years old now, but they were the beginning of a new form of writing that profoundly transformed humanity.” Invader’s worldwide art-installation effort is clearly an expression of that other global phenomenon—contemporary urban graffiti.
“The first person who wrote a name on a wall in a city,” he says, “—that was an act of such power—talk about an atomic bomb! Today there isn’t a city in the world where the train doesn’t roll past kilometer after kilometer of graffiti, all because one person wrote a name on a wall.” Invader’s own expansive project channels the power in graffiti, but in a fresh and subtle way, says Shepard Fairey, the pioneering American street artist known for his Obey Giant posters and his iconic Obama Hope portrait.
Fairey remembers the day in 1999 that he first noticed an Invader mosaic in London, on a pillar near the Houses of Parliament. “His work immediately appealed to me as a clever, subversive direction for graffiti—he utilized the historical mosaic medium but referenced digital pixilation,” he says. Clever too, he adds, because it’s not only engaging but attractive.“The public, for the most part, perceives graffiti as antagonistic, not decorative,” says Fairey. “Invader’s work uses a medium that is almost exclusively applied in a decorative way and subverts it. I love anything that encourages an audience to question assumptions and observe and analyze more sharply.” While many artists can catch your attention once, Invader makes you want to search around the next corner for more— and even changes the way we see the world, says Manhattan art dealer Jonathan Levine. “There are interesting and esoteric ideas behind what he does. His work is funny, smart and layered…it speaks to many types of people on a variety of levels. For me this is the best kind of art.”
Back at the Pause Café, one person does recognize Invader after all—owner Didier Alaux, who stops by the table with a quiet bonjour. More than a decade ago, Invader was just another struggling artist when he asked if he could put one of his works in the café. “Just try,” Alaux responded. A few weeks later, Alaux arrived one morning to find a red Space Invader mosaic freshly cemented high up on stone pillar next to the bar. “I never knew how he did it,” Alaux says. “But I’m super happy to have it. And we’ve kept his identity secret ever since.” That’s not the typical response of a business owner after an act of vandalism, but it seems people rarely see Invader’s work as such. “He’s not about writing on walls to piss people off; there’s something human about it. It’s playful art,” says Alaux.
He points to a wall just outside the café where Invader set a large Pac-Man-inspired mosaic some six years ago. “No one would ever think of tearing that down today. On the contrary—he’s part of the Parisian landscape now.” And that, it seems, has been Invader’s goal all along. “Putting works of art in the street, as I’ve done for 15 years, is a very important statement for me,” he says. “The art world is very elitist. Few people get into galleries or museums, and there is a millionaire’s club in the contemporary art world. I fight against that. I’m working for the democratization of art. It’s no longer the public having to go to art, it’s art brought to the public.”
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of France Today magazine.
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