Across the globe, migrants embark on arduous journeys to find salvation from political unrest, religious persecution, disenfranchisement, and an array of other injustices. Some of their stories are shared the world over by those who empathize. Contemporary artist Gusto Zagg is one of these people.
An associate of the renowned street artist JR, Zagg's art pulls the curtain back on a variety of troubles plaguing modern society. With his latest work, “Untitled (fireworks.mov)”, Zagg aims to shine a light on the oft-ignored journey of migrants, specifically those traversing the Mediterranean. With “Untitled (fireworks.mov)” set to be unveiled in 2019, Gusto Zagg took some time to share his story and the inspiration behind the work.
Can you give a bit of background on who you are and how your personal narrative sets the foundation for the works you create?
My works are borne out of a familial and rebellious spirit, in the suburbs of Paris. I grew up in an environment marked by hippy and punk influences. My elders led fringe lives, far different from mine. Despite this, a social conscience quickly developed. I even studied political science rather than going to art school. My first artistic experiences started at around 15 years old, with the discovery of graffiti. I always get nostalgic about my teenage years, it’s an age that fascinates me. The naiveté and the raw creations of that period have shaped my relationship with art. Gusto Zagg is a fictional person created to sign my, sometimes illegal, works.
When did you begin working with JR? What about his work and process drew you to him?
I began working with JR in 2010, when I was 18. I worked with him until 2016 on his projects, his exhibitions, and his collaboration with Agnès Varda. I was inspired by the scope and ambition of his actions. In his work, the human aspect overshadows theoretical thinking and technique. My practice has evolved with a mentality much like his.
Much of your collaborative work with JR is tied to shining a light on the disenfranchised or somewhat forgotten. Would you say this theme permeated your piece “Untitled (fireworks.mov)”?
JR shows faces and shares individual stories. For “Untitled (fireworks.mov)”, I wanted to illustrate the failure of a Mediterranean crossing without showing images of migrants. The challenge was to bring awareness to an extreme situation without falling into its standard media treatment. The project shares a subversive and freed representation of the dramas of migration without the “compassional” aspect.
Your work as Gusto Zagg focuses on the violence and complexity of identity. Can you expound on why it is significant for us to know this when experiencing your work?
I work at the crossroads of visual creation and information processing. The work explores violence in its complete sense. It can be political, physical, urban, economic, racist, mental, verbal… The notions of tension and failure are a constant in my works, they are often associated with problems of identity, notably due to migration. The process has taken on broad themes: the French riots of the 80s, a psychiatric ward, the beating of Rodney King, and even the current migration tragedy.
Immigration is a topic that is heavily discussed internationally, why was it important for you to add to the dialogue?
I learned about these migrations when I was still a student, in 2011. The shipwrecks are constant and have been widely covered since that time. As an artist, you must propose new perceptions and question the limits of aestheticizing human tragedy. The Mediterranean is historically tied to migration and trade. These past few years, the massive influx of refugees has marked the region with tragedy, notably near Lampedusa and Lesbos. In the 2000s, shipwrecks and overcrowded boats were already spotted in the Canary Islands and the Straits of Gibraltar. This tragedy concerns the whole of the Mediterranean, so it was necessary to consider the space as a whole without specifying any one zone. “Untitled (fireworks.mov)” includes neither date nor precise location.
How did your French-Senegalese identity inform this piece and the rest of your oeuvre?
When you’re born in the West, as I was, without knowing anything about exile or horror, it’s difficult to understand the urgency of these migrations. To point out a situation or evoke a feeling is not motivated by my origins. I study symbols, behaviors and narratives that I then interpret into an artistic field. My work is simply anchored in a global and violent reality.
The use of distress flares and fireworks reminded me of artillery fire, was this your intent? It reminded me that people sometimes immigrate to Europe due to political and civil unrest tied to war or violence in their homelands.
It’s a pertinent interpretation. It reminds me of the infra-red images of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, broadcast by the media in the early 2000s. More recently, the region of the Mediterranean has transformed into a deadly border for people forced into exile. When considering how to approach the shipwrecks of refugees, I was attracted by the red flares that sailors use. I created a monochromatic, clandestine firework inspired by the color and meaning of that flare. Fireworks are a universally festive symbol that I wanted to convert into a mark of urgency. It’s a metaphor for the woes in the Mediterranean.
What do you hope this latest work evokes from viewers and the art world?
The project is about uprooting, exile, and the consequences of chaos outside of Europe. I’m sharing a subjective vision of actual problems. “Untitled (fireworks.mov)” was a nocturnal action with no spectators. The performance was filmed on a cell phone, which we use to communicate, geolocate and translate when migrating. The published images, in low resolution, are the only existing archives for the public. The video is accompanied by techno music, alarming and brutal, created by the composer Bedis Tir. “Untitled (fireworks.mov)” is intended for immersive exhibitions and screenings.
When viewing your piece, I can’t help but think of current events, specifically the 2018 World Cup-winning French team being called an “African team”, and Mesut Ozil retiring from international football over claims of racism. Would you say these instances speak to the often-overlooked contributions of migrants and also the dual role they are at times forced to play?
Stakes around social status go beyond official nationalities. Truly belonging to a society and a nation is a complex process for these citizens. In my piece “Untitled (fra/alg),” I delve into the pitch invasion of the 2001 France-Algeria match at the Stade de France. The postcolonial pains and frustrations of the Algerian fans exploded right there on the field, live. This social determinism and existential problem have been a constant for generations.
What can we expect from you next? Or where can the readers of Good Trouble check out any current works or upcoming exhibitions?
I’m heading back to Senegal at the end of the year for a project that is part investigation, part personal narrative.
Words by Greg Hurdle. gustozagg.com for more
Untitled (fireworks.mov)” will be exhibited in 2019
There are, of course, many groups that work with and help refugees, but you could start by looking at International Rescue Committee.
Learn about some of the myths surrounding the refugee crisis. Guardian
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