‘I Wanted This Project to Have a Planetary Dimension’: Street Artist Invader on Installing More Than 4,000 of His Mosaic Works Around the World
To celebrate the milestone, Over the Influence gallery in Paris is offering duplicates of some of the artist's well known public installations, priced between €38,000-€500,000.
French street artist Invader (who prefers to keep his real identity anonymous) has been transforming mosaic tiles into instantly recognizable artworks since the late 1990s. Originally inspired by the pixelated characters in a computer game, his early works, reminiscent of creeping alien crabs or insects, would cling unobtrusively to the exterior walls of Parisian buildings.
In the last few decades, the artist’s Space Invaders have popped up in 80 international cities, steadily becoming more ambitious in theme, scale and palette. The inspiration for each works is always site-specific: sometimes they evoke the colors of national flags, recall familiar cartoon characters, or honor masterpieces. For instance, a Space Invader version of the Mona Lisa is located near the Louvre, another of La Source by Ingres is in Montauban, home to the Musée Ingres Bourdelle, which commissioned the piece.
Space Invaders have also been spotted in increasingly unlikely locations, from a ski lift in the Swiss resort town Anzère to Cancun Bay, where they are installed on Jason De Caires’ underwater sculptures off the coast of Mexico.
In 2015, one of his works entered the International Space Station, thanks to Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who placed the small, colorful mosaic on the hatch of the European Space Agency’s laboratory Columbus. And last year, Invader installed his 4,000th Street Invader in Potosí, Bolivia—a significant choice in location because the mountainous town is at an altitude of 4,000 meters above sea level.
But as Invader’s fanbase has grown, so have attempts to steal his pieces. In 2017, around 15 artworks were removed from buildings in Paris by thieves posing as city workers. The police arrested the culprits and the artist filed a complaint.
To finance his travels, Invader sells works in galleries, essentially a unique copy of his public artworks, as well as works made with Rubik’s cubes. He also takes on public commissions from museums, cities and other institutions that he calls his “1 percent legal” work, compared to the 99 percent of his projects that are technically illegal, since they are installed without property owners’ permission. Some of these legal works are on the facades of a hospital in Paris, a subway bridge in Vienna, and the Daejeon Museum of Art in South Korea.
Invader also makes an “alias”, or unique copy, of some of his artworks that are sold through his gallery, Over the Influence. With spaces in Paris, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Bangkok, the gallery has been representing the artist exclusively for eight years.
To mark the proliferation of the Space Invaders—the “world-wide invasion” today numbers 4,068 works—Over the Influence in Paris is presenting the exhibition “Invader 4,000,” from December 10–January 22, 2023. Each of the works on view corresponds to a Space Invader installed in a public place, but these are all available for sale, priced from €38,000-€500,000, with the most expensive being a mosaic Mona Lisa.
Running concurrently to “Invader 4000” is “Invader Rubikcubist”, featuring more than 100 works that Invader made using Rubik’s cubes, which is now on show at MIMA in Brussels, through January 8, 2023. We spoke with the artist from his Paris studio.
Why did you choose mosaic tiles as your material of predilection?
I was very interested in computers and the internet entering our world, especially digital images composed of big pixels. I wanted to use this aesthetic in my work, initially by making paintings and prints. Then, realizing that ceramic tiles could directly represent pixels, I started to make paintings in mosaic tiles stuck on panels of wood. One day, at the end of 1996, I had the idea of sticking the mosaic onto an exterior wall around Paris—it represented a small space invader. But it was only in 1998 that I became aware of the significance of this gesture. Then I started the Space Invaders project by sticking mosaics on the walls of Paris, then the rest of the world, because I wanted, from the beginning, for this project to have a planetary dimension.
Can you tell us about your ambition and “urban acupuncture” philosophy?
Since my pieces are minuscule compared to the immensity of a city, I choose where I’ll place them meticulously and precisely, a bit like an acupuncturist picking the points they will prick with a needle. My choice obeys criteria, such as the visibility, aesthetics, frequentation or, on the contrary, isolation of a place and its location on a map. In the past, often when I was invited to participate in an exhibition, I’d go to the city during the installation, bringing mosaics with me to invade the city. As I gained more financial means, I self-financed trips to other places where I wanted to work, such as Africa, India or South America, because I found it interesting to go to unexpected places outside the art circuit, which gave a new aesthetic, geographical, conceptual or even ideological dimension to the project.
How has your process, in terms of reacting to a site and researching it, evolved?
At the beginning, I’d prepare a certain number of pieces without knowing where I’d install them, and I’d react directly on the ground by looking for spots that would suit them best. But that was quite frustrating because I’d sometimes find spots but I didn’t have adequate pieces for them, or vice versa. So then I started location scouting beforehand, so that I could make pieces that would fit—in terms of size, color and theme—because the idea is to play with the place, architecture and context. I do a lot of research before invading any new towns in order to produce pieces that resonate with the local culture.
Have you ever been arrested?
I’ve been arrested a good number of times, and there are countries and towns that I can’t return to—like Japan or Malaga in Spain. When the police were searching for me in Tokyo, they arrested the gallerist representing me and placed him in custody for two weeks for questioning. I’d made an amazing wave of invasions in Tokyo and had left the country, but was extremely upset that the authorities arrested an innocent person.
How have you changed your technique in order to make your works harder to steal?
I’ve found a way to make the tiles more fragile, so that they break as soon as someone tries to pull them off the wall. This has been very efficient and, paradoxically, has saved them from theft. It saddens me that there are people who act like that. Not only do they destroy an artist’s work but they prevent other people from being able to discover it. Additionally, it completely distorts the scope of the work, which was thought out in situ and finds itself decontextualized on a piece of a torn wall.
How do you balance your public commissions and gallery shows with your street art?
I call commissions from institutions my 1 percent legal—since 99 percent of my work is realized without authorization. I’m not against the idea of accepting institutional commissions. And I’ve always had gallery exhibitions in parallel to my urban work. One nourishes the other and it’s very motivating for me as it enables me to do something different.
What do you think of the market growth for street art?
When I started out, street art didn’t exist [as a movement or in the art market]. There were some pioneers like me but there weren’t more than 10 of us worldwide. I felt that what we were doing was new and interesting, but I’d never have imagined that this movement would become so important. Today, it’s crazy—street art is recognized as a big movement.
Do you collect art?
Lots—street artists, of course, because we’re a big family and we all know each other, but not only them. Some of the ones I’d mention are Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Todd James, Cleon Peterson, Revs, Futura and Damien Hirst.
What was the last exhibition that you enjoyed?
During the installation of my exhibition at the MIMA in Brussels, I visited the Magritte Museum—Magritte’s my favorite Surrealist.
In which other destinations would you like to install Space Invaders?
There are numerous places where I’d love to work, for example Canada, Russia (when circumstances allow) or certain towns in Europe, and even France.
“Invader 4,000” is on view at Over the Influence, Paris, from December 10–January 22, 2023.
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