Armsrock and the art of invisibility

Outside a carpenter’s shop near the Townhouse Gallery lies a white-washed silhouette of a life-size image of a man carrying a heavy bag. The figure is the work of Danish visual artist Armsrock, who observes passersby and illustrates them through life-size images. He then plants these on the environments they would normally be seen, but perhaps be easily dismissed.

Interestingly, his graffiti piece — itself an exercise in invisible commentary — was painted over by the police shortly after the artist unveiled it earlier this month as part of the “Streets of Cairo” fest. Armsrock talked to Daily News Egypt from Denmark about his work and this encounter.

Daily News Egypt: Tell us about your work …
Armsrock: I work primarily with interventions in public space and site-and time-specific installations. The basic medium of my work is drawing, in a classical figurative form, which I then transfer into urban contexts. This is either via large unique charcoal drawings of people from the margin of society that I paste onto walls with glue, or through various forms of analogue projection techniques.

The focus of my work in the urban space is to explore the human condition in these surroundings, and interact with the city and its inhabitants to convey this exploration. I strive to create a non-verbal dialogue between the inhabitants of the city and myself, using the drawn image and the surface of the architecture as a means to transport this dialogue. By doing so, I am also transforming the way that we look at the predefined meaning of a certain space and situation, and I thereby attempt to unveil some of the less noticed mechanisms of the urban space.
What happened that time you drew something at the Townhouse Gallery?
I drew a life-size image of a man that I had seen passing down the street next to Townhouse. He must have been in his 40s and he was carrying a bag with something in it under his arm. The image that I drew was not a direct portrait of him, but rather an allegorical image derived from the impression that he gave me.

I render my drawings this way to create a space within them for others to identify with, so that instead of drawing an image of “the man” it becomes “a man,” or rather the possibility of a condition facing others in that same area.

To me the drawing represented a certain impression that I was getting from the area around those streets, and I wanted to return that impression to the place where it came from. So I made an agreement with the people who owned the house and those that owned the stores in the building, and I then glued the drawing on the wall next to a small carpenter store. They were very happy with it, and despite the fact that neither of us spoke the same language, this action, me putting up the drawing, was the start of a communication between us that lasted for the next couple of days.

When I returned the next morning the drawing had been painted over by the police. It was painted over in such a way that the figure was still clearly visible, but now only as a white silhouette.

Do you think that in some way it has been a success?
I did not think that it was a good or bad thing that happened, but it holds an interesting statement. My relation to the work that I place in the streets is so that I want the work to take on a life of its own once it is out of my hands; that is the key difference to working inside the sheltered space of a gallery setting.

When I interact with the streets I want something to happen, some sort of situation should occur, and it always does. I have only never experienced such a direct form of censorship before, and expressed in such an interesting manner, and that was what I thought was a good thing.

What happened was that the totalitarianism of the police suddenly showed its colors.

What were your exectations when you came?
When doing art-work in the street, one of the main conditions is that I have to adjust to, and correspond with, whatever environment I find myself in. This is not always easy, and I knew that working in the streets of Cairo would be no exception. But I had expected this before I came to the town. I had expected and wanted to experience the culture clash, the fragmented dialogue with a space and the people in it. I had expected to be changed by the experience and I do feel that I have been, in a very positive way. And I expected to be able to communicate some of that process of change to some of the inhabitants of the city, and leave some of it behind, like a public diary of sorts.

Is it true that graffiti in Denmark too can be driven underground?
I think that graffiti everywhere is approached in a similar way by the state. But there is a striking difference to the way that they treat it in Denmark in general and what happened to this picture that we are speaking of.

In Denmark the censorship is disguised as an attempt to keep the walls of the cities clean, and they do this in such a way that they diminish the value and power of the artwork and statements expressed on these walls.

What the Cairo police did to the drawing was instead of diminishing its value and power, they enhanced them. When the censorship goes about its business as forthright as they did, they are clearly saying, “This is a threat to us.”

Follow Armsrock’s work at http://armsrock.blogspot.com/.

Originally published online at Daily News Egypt on June 29, 2010.

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About CK

i sleep, i wake, i write chitra[dot]kalyani[at]gmail[dot]com
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