It was the most unusual art opening of the South Florida season. The gallery was a back wall of the Miami Children’s Museum. The artiste was clad not in a tuxedo but a white plasticized jumpsuit and cloth mask that made him look like a cleanup worker at a biochemical spill or maybe just Woody Allen dressed like a sperm in Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex.
And the work was not a painting or a sculpture but a 35-square-foot mosaic of a character from the old Space Invaders game, mounted about 20 feet up the side of the wall, where its reflective-tile eyes seemed to follow the motorists speeding along the MacArthur Causeway with a kind of ominous cheerfulness.
Of course, no opening is complete until the critics have spoken. The most influential, in this case, would be the bosses at the Children’s Museum, who had no idea their wall was host to a giant outer-space parasite. The artist had mounted it with a nuclear-holocaust-proof epoxy glue at 3 in the morning, using a niche in the wall to conceal himself from a security camera about a hundred feet away.
“I’m interested to see how the museum will react,” said the artist, beaming up at his latest creation. “For me it’s a gift I gave to the museum. Some people would pay to have a piece like this in their house. But at the same time, it’s totally illegal.”
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South Florida, meet the French street artist known only as Invader. (“But you can call me Space!”) His clandestine mosaics of characters from Space Invaders, Ms. Pac-Man and other 1970s video game characters have been popping up over the past 15 years on walls, freeway abutments and bridge pillars everywhere from Paris to Katmandu. And about two weeks ago, they began appearing around Miami-Dade.
He has put up more than 25 so far, ranging from a cute little six-by-four-inch creature at the bottom of the small wall in front of an apartment building at 15th and Collins to a eight-by-nine-foot blue behemoth with hellish red eyes mounted on the wall of a utility building on Northeast Second Avenue near the intersection with Second Street. There’s even an Invader mosaic on a blocked-up window on the south wall of the Gusman Center on Southeast First Street. (There are also a couple of dozen pieces around town from an earlier Invader visit that went unnoticed during the hubbub of the 2010 Art Basel festival.)
Reaction has varied. When the staff at the Children’s Museum finally discovered the creature on their back wall on Friday, they delightedly posted a photo on their Facebook page captioned “Look what we found on our building!” and asking if they should keep it. Unanimous verdict of readers: yes.
But when an employee at Jerry’s Famous Deli on Collins was asked if anybody had found a mosaic that Invader installed inside the restaurant on Wednesday, he replied warily: “I heard something about that...You’d better talk to the general manager.” Who, alas, was not available.
Confusion and caution are not unusual when it comes to Invader’s work, says Carlo McCormick, a New York curator and critic who’s an enthusiastic Invader fan.
“Is it real art, or just a goof or vandalism? All of the above, hopefully,” McCormick said by telephone Friday. “That’s art for me — serious, but also goofy and a little bit vandalistic. What I wonder about is why people who question whether Invader’s street mosaics are really art don’t also ask what 16-year-old girls are doing in skimpy little bras in underwear ads, or the increasing privatization of public space that’s taken over by advertising...
“Most of us walk through life pretty blinkered. Anything that makes us laugh or makes us wonder about things is probably pretty good.”
Invader himself talks only reluctantly about whatever message he’s trying to convey because “I want everybody to have their own interpretation.” He’ll say only that it’s a commentary on the digital takeover of the world — “technology is a new evolutionary stage of man” — as well as a political commentary on the ownership of art.
“Putting art out in the street and not being elitist, that’s what I’m doing,” Invader said. “Who goes in galleries and museums? Only a few. But everybody goes in the street.”
The message, he readily admits, is not always well-received, especially by those in uniform. Police have chased him with machine guns in Istanbul (“The building where I was going to put something was an embassy, but I didn’t know that”) and with helicopters in Los Angeles (“they seemed rather sensitive about the big Hollywood sign, but I convinced them I was a just a stupid tourist”).
“I’ve spent a lot of nights in jail,” he said. “But they almost always let me go in the morning.” Usually after some pointed questions about , aren’t you a little old to be doing this? Although one Parisian cop let him go in return for a promise that Invader would give the policeman one of his mosaics — a very good deal for the cop, since galleries sell Invader’s own replicas of his pieces for prices ranging from $6,000 to $20,000.
There’s also a bootleg market on eBay, where Invader mosaics torn from walls go for a couple of thousand bucks. “The main danger to my work isn’t from police anymore,” Invader says. “It’s from people removing the mosaics to sell them. I went looking for one of the pieces I installed during my first trip to Miami and you can see the marks on the wall where somebody used an electric saw to take it down.”
Invader’s mosaics can be found in scores of cities around the world, often tweaked with a little homage to local culture. One of his aliens can be seen on the landmark Brussels fountain Mannekin Pis — Dutch dialect for “little boy peeing,” a literal description of the fountain’s sculpture — with a suggestive cascade of yellow tiles between its legs.
But nowhere is he more popular than his native Paris, where the 43-year-old Invader began his covert career about 15 years ago. “I own Paris,” he boasts. “I have totally invaded Paris. You cannot walk three feet without seeing one of my pieces.” More than 1,000 of his mosaics decorate the city, including one on the Eiffel Tower and another facing the Louvre.
Parisians are so smitten with the works that last year the city dissolved into an art rebellion known as the Post-It War, in which office buildings and stores competed to see who could create the biggest replica of an Invader creature in their windows using the sticky little memo pads.
But now the target is Miami, where Invader’s grandiose plans include an actual space shot: He wants to launch a helium balloon carrying a payload that includes a tiny video camera and a mosaic, to be photographed with the South Florida landscape 90 miles below as a backdrop. The first attempt, staged Thursday from a southwest Palm Beach County canefield as bemused agricultural workers looked on, failed to get off the ground. “Newton was right,” brooded Invader. But he’ll try again this week.
He’s also searching for a cheap boat rental that will enable him to put mosaics on the sides of bridges to the islands in Biscayne Bay. And when he drove up to the Miami Herald building to see a reporter, Invader’s eyes widened. “Look at all these wonderful walls!” he exclaimed. “Do you think I could put up a piece on one of them?” (Let the record clearly show that the reporter replied that approval for the project would have to come from somewhere well above his pay grade.)
Invader’s efforts will climax in December with a show at Art Basel, where fans will be able to buy a glossy coffee-table book full of photos of his Miami mosaics. Meanwhile, he’ll continue his relentlessly illicit work here for another two weeks.
“I was at this show in Great Britain where a museum had invited famous street artists from all over the world,” McCormick recalled. “The director was a big wheel in town, and he’d secured several subway stops where these artists could paint or whatever with permission, with as much space as they want and the blessings of authority. And still Invader just couldn’t stop himself — pretty soon they got a phone call that he’d been thrown in jail for installing his mosaics out in the streets.”
If you spot an Invader mosaic in South Florida, snap a photo and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org with location information for use in an upcoming photo gallery.