C215 stencil portrait in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Interview by Jess Zimmerman
Christian Guémy travels to bring his work to environments that remain virgin and pristine, meaning they haven’t become trendy hubs of street art culture. We discovered that he’s quick to dismiss a few obvious ones, like New York or London, but it’s his criticism of Paris, that really resonates. Calling in from Sri Lanka, we got the straight talk on what drives this artist off the beaten track.
The resentment that has propelled Guémy out of his own city is situated in what he describes as the ‘trendy scene’, where graffiti and street art have been transformed into something fashionable, and who can blame him? Despite the fact that Guémy is no little-league player — he’s certainly been around the block a few times — he stays remarkably faithful to the original sentiments characteristic of May ’68, a date attributed with the birth of street art in Paris:
In a historic moment of true social upheaval, students and workers went on strike together, unified under a critique of capitalist society and all it unraveled. This subsequently informed a street art movement and a generation of artists concerned with freedom of speech and personal expression.
In this light, Guémy’s global mission to get his intricate stencil work up in cities everywhere brings with it commendable altruistic appeal; his creative drive knows no boundaries, physical or otherwise. His work is passionate and meaningful, not to mention visually stunning, but the real intrigue lies in the intent behind the action.
It’s quickly clear that Guémy isn’t simply bringing his work to new locations, but is actually out spreading the gospel; that is, the almighty street dogma of personal virtue and integrity. In a constant rejection of the potential corruption that commercial success may entail, this artist seeks new territory in an effort to stay true to the art form, and to his unshakable sense of self.
The word C215 repeats the most is ‘freedom’, which, if psychoanalysis has anything to tell us, is suggestive of at least some level of personal complex:
His constant preoccupation with those he never blatantly labels as sell-outs or fashion-victims (and yet the implication is clear) suggests an inner tension. Especially when indirectly pitted against his own projected cred— “this is a lifestyle, fashion or not”… “some say I’m fashionable, some say I’m not, personally I don’t care” — C215 reveals a vulnerable underbelly, perhaps denoting a struggle with similar issues.
The question at hand though is whether this hang-up on ‘freedom’ has to do with a perceived insufficiency-of or a carousal-in.
This determination to remain free from constraint or imposition is the result of a calamity that is currently running deep in street and graffiti culture. Artists increasingly gain fame and success through institutional recognition, as opposed to overcoming the realities of creating (illegal) art in the streets. As a tribulation that is clearly here to stay, this happening represents a delicate area for artists like C215.
When questioned about the personal versus commercial nature of his work, Guémy is visibly irritated: at first he quickly snips “this isn’t advertising” defending the candor of his work, and revealing how close the association between commercial success and total implosion is for him. But in the next breath, perhaps realizing the futility of denying the list of gallery exhibitions and painting sales trailing his name, he suddenly becomes reflective, gently acknowledging this contradiction with the quiet concession, “we all have a job”.
In the headstrong and yet impulsively wavering nature that I have come to assume are simply part of Guémy’s character, he quickly retracts any inadvertent admission, drastically switching his tone and returning to the critical stance he holds against those who are “all about the exposure”. Not surprisingly he goes back to throwing some serious shade on the cities that, in his own words, have since lost their potential for any real experimentation. He underscores the fact that he is currently half-way across the globe, in an effort to live and work by his principles.
Guémy’s main issue and concern is that the spirit of his work remain ‘true’, by which he insinuates free from commercial, spectacle, or otherwise generally frowned-upon sanctioning. He is rebelling against an invisible compromising force, embodied (at least for him) in the ever-increasing popularity of the movement. Freedom to Guémy clearly means total individualism.
In a last attempt at poking the bear, I questioned Guémy about his use of social media and received a response that again, embodies a fascinating adherence to a morally-guided personal vocation combined with some clear inner tension.
Guémy’s nearly 400,000 likes on Facebook do not suggest an artist on the fringes, deeply antagonistic to society— an image it seems his self-concept is tempted to put-forth, but he does hold a truly unique ideology in terms of his digital exposure:
“I don’t think you can separate street art from the internet. I take a picture from reality and then transform it into a stencil, but it always retains it’s virtual roots. But then the painting itself is real, but then it gets photographed and returns to the digital. Its a constant transformative process. It feeds into itself, it’s cyclical. It’s all about sampling and looping, sampling and looping”.
For Guémy, social media is his primary method of outreach, but it also acts as a way to expand the viewable base of his work (see his carefully curated and organized Flickr, a true work of art in itself). He emphasizes that it’s also a method of maintaining his integrity. In the sense that his social media remains autonomous and fully controlled by Guémy himself, it’s indisputable that any disseminated message remains his own; “this isn’t Shorditch, its not just a matter of hype.”
Guémy contrasts his social media following with blogs and journals where “you end up working for an end that isn’t even your own”, associating this external source of media validation with a distinct risk: “what happens if they decide you aren’t It anymore? If they boycott you? I don’t ever want to be dependent on any establishment or institution. I want to stay myself, and never loose my dignity to being fashionable.”
It’s clear that C215 acknowledges the conditions that characterize the scene today and chooses distinctly to remain unassociated, preferring instead the conditions he finds in areas like Sri Lanka. Whether this continues to make him an innovator or a deserter is up for debate, but regardless one thing remains true: he’s not compromising diddly-squat while he’s at it.