Sylvielin's Blog

”The City Is My Canvas”: Interview with Mr. Cat

Posted in about Art, Interviews with Artists by sylvielin on July 15, 2012

“I try to take part in the naissance and the exchange of a culture of proximity. (…) Tired of the individualism of graffiti, for several years, I try to develop a certain idea that is federative and positive.”

—-Thoma Vuille, a.k.a. Mr. Cat (M. Chat)[1]

At the end of 2004, a giant cat (50 x 25 m2) was painted on the plaza in front of the Pompidou Center.(Courtesy Etienne Sandrin)

(Interview were mde in Paris. See Chinese version onSylvie Lin’s blog in Chinese :

http://blog.roodo.com/sylvie/archives/19909420.html)

Since 1977, Swiss-born artist Thoma Vuille painted images of a yellow grinning cat in public spaces in French cities such as Orléans, Nantes, Paris, etc. Each graffiti is accompanied by the signature ”M. Chat”. Seen frequently high on the roofs or other visible spots, the cat with its smile became something familiar to city people. It was until 2007 when Vuille let himself be caught by the police during the execution of a graffiti in a subway in Orléans, that the real visage of the artist was revealed to the public. Apart from public spaces, the cat also slips into the manifestation crowds in Paris since 2001, after the presidential election. Placards showing the cat suddenly appeared among the demonstrators ; the scenes were spread through TV news nationalwide. Until today, Mr. Cat, along with the Cat Collective created in 2001 by Vuille, Etienne Sandrin (independent curator who also works in the Pompidou Center) and others, is invited to make in-situ projects worldwide ; the territory is extended as far as Asian countries like Japan and Korea, as well as war zones such as Sarajevo.

In my interview with Mr. Cat, he traced the origin of his cat graffiti : ”I did graffiti in my teens. It was in this way that I got interested in cultural things.” Also, ”at the time of my personal utopia, I wanted to make a revolution. I wanted to have cats everywhere and that people repaint them.”[2] Later, Vuille implanted cats into the manifestation crowds. According to him, it was partly out of the concern of ”visibility” : ”At a certain moment, I realized that it wasn’t enough to exist or to be seen by solely painting on walls.” Inspired by how political groups generated force by gathering a great number of people – notwithstanding the absurdity in such actions -, he decided to make use of manifestations : ”Instead of distributing logos of associations, I’d make placards of cats.” Starting with small placards, he then ”just gave an entire painting to an anti-war parade.” Around the anti-war subject, he developed a whole series based on the dove of peace by Picasso. It was at this moment that the cat was endowed with two wings. On the conceptual level, giving out placards of cat which deliver no specific ideological messages in the demonstration crowds introduces a heterogeneity into the specific social context. As Vuille stated : ”I feel like giving artworks to people who don’t know about art” ; for him, his such action also has a ”disarming” effect.

At the end of 2004, Vuille with an assisting team painted a giant cat (50 X 25 m2) on the plaza in front of the Pompidou Center, an action organized by the Cat Collective at the occasion of the premier of the film Le Chat perché / The Case of the Grinning Cat in the Center (the film is directed by established French filmmaker Chris Marker. The subject is Vuille’s cat graffiti). Called ”the biggest cat in the world”, the creature thus occupied the institution’s extended territory. Outside of the institution’s entrance, the specific site illustrated that ”The idea of the cats was to mark out the territory, to invade and to affirm its existence without stepping into the institution”, writes Sandrin ; the cat’s presence at the site also ”reveals that the Center’s plaza can also be a surface of inscription and, by extension, that the public space can also become a playground”.[3]

Furthermore, Vuille’s painting cats in urban spaces and spreading the cat’s image in the demonstrations provoke frictions in an existing system of signs and thus open up crevices in the system’s operation. As Sandrin analyzes : ”In contrast to images that are imposed on us in the urban contexts – images which often imply injuctions ; symbolic images representing a certain established social order – the cat’s image insolantly inscribed on walls didn’t convey any message. Except for its big smile and gazing eyes, it reclaims nothing(…)”.[4] As for Vuille : ”I’m like a sponge ; I reproduce what I see. (…) Finally, the urban environment is filled with flashing signs. At a certain moment, me too, I wanted to have my own light shining there. Not for dominating people, but just to breathe.”

Globally, Vuille’s diverse practices around the cat graffiti represent attempts to introduce ambiguities into a homogeneous system or to provoke interactions or connections among people. It is also reflected in each in-situ project he does : he develops its form and content according to the culture and the situation of a specific place. Like his kite project in collaboration with local people in Vietnam (see the documentary on : http://vimeo.com/20838116), his tracing a giant cat contour on the farm in a countryside in France (which constitutes a kind of Land Art) or strolling through the city with his entire body painted in yellow (a reprise of Yves Klein’s paintings made with models painted in blue). As Sandrin pointed out : ”It’s extremely pertinent, intelligent and interrogative to introduce elements of art history which is also a space comme to all – it’s a history comme to us all. It’s also important to consider all this as being related to a social community at a certain time, in a certain era, in a certain history.”[5]

The next stops of the cat and the Cat Collective include Beirut and Geneva. The content of the projects is still under planning. What is sure is ”always bearing in mind the idea of avoiding clichés. It’s better to work in a way that is a little bit dangerous and provocative, just like Mr. Cat went on the scaffolding to paint cats.” said Sandrin.

Notes
1. From the preface of the book M. Chat (Editions Alternatives, Paris, 2010).
2. All the qutations of Mr. Cat in the text come from the interview.
3. Etienne Sandrin, ”Le plus grand chat du monde”(The Biggest Cat in the World
, in the book M. Chat.
4. Idem.
5. The quotations in the paragraph and the next paragraph come from my interview with Sandrin.

First published on Taipei Forum Media(July 2011) : Chinese version http://www.atfm.asia/tw/article.php?id=58 ; English version http://www.atfm.asia/en/article.php?id=61)

Links

Mr. Cat’s official website (Europe) : http://www.monsieurchat.fr
Mr. Cat’s official website (Asia) :
http://www.ttoma.tv
Mr. Cat’made graffiti in a subway in Paris : http://vimeo.com/20647923

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