Art Without Borders: Capucine Gros

Capucine Gros caught our eye on the platform where we obtain our most valuable news and information: Instagram. She was and continues to be in the midst of documenting Approximately 199, an installation and performance art project where she wears a shirt with a different country every day.

Through her art, Capucine not only attempts to challenge the eurocentric model of the art world but with a world that is increasingly moving toward the direction of binarisms, she brings into perspective how limiting and invalid these borders and boundaries are.

We caught up with the young artist to learn more about her and her art.

What made you decide to become an artist?

Becoming an artist and choosing to study art was actually a strategy for me to avoid choices. In school I was interested in many subjects: languages, literature, geography, history, biology, etc. At 16, I was extremely frustrated by the obligation to choose a single area of study or a single career direction, but I noticed that in art I had the freedom to synthesize several other subjects as well as research anything else I wanted. I imagined that being an artist meant having the freedom to make projects about anything at all, so it seemed like a good solution to cheat the decision-making process and choose everything at once.

At that time I was also attending high school in Shanghai where an extraordinary art teacher made me research and study living, breathing artists rather than look at museum paintings of “dead white European men,” as most of my previous art classes had done to that point. I did always love art as a child but did not believe making a living as an artist was even possible until that time. In addition to that teacher, I was also very fortunate to have an artist-in-residence in my school who was living proof that working as an artist was possible.

Both these factors led me to conclude that being an artist was not only possible but also, for me, the most meaningful way I could find to exist.

How did you conceive of the 199 project?

The idea of countries and nationalities has always fascinated me. From a young age I was aware that I was born in a different country from all my family (Switzerland) and yet had a French passport like them. So I noticed early on that there was something very random and arbitrary about nationality. This struck me even more when I moved to China and was infused in a community of mixed-nationalities with all sorts of convoluted passport situations, language hybrids and ever-fluctuating definitions of “home.” I became increasingly aware and interested in disputed territories and nationalities, starting with places nearby like Hong-Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.

After this I moved to Savannah, Georgia and encountered the opposite end of the spectrum: people who had never left their home country, which is an equally fascinating phenomenon. It’s at that time that I started consciously seeking strategies in my work to explore this theme of “globality.”  

In 2012, I started working with Alfredo Jaar on his project for the 2013 Venice Biennale. His project criticized the hypocrisy of the Biennale structure whose idea is to have one pavilion for each country in the world when it actually operates under an extremely biased, eurocentric and imbalanced economic model. As we planned, his project tried to compare the number of countries in the world (193 by United Nations count) with the number of countries represented that year (28 only in the Giardini, 88 including annex pavilions). That’s when I realized that the very question of how many countries exist in the world is actually an extremely complicated one, and that’s when I made my first yearly sketchbook from the series, with one page for every country. At the time it was titled “Approximately 196” but in 2016 I increased the number to “Approximately 199” in order to match the number of passports in the world.

How has traveling changed the way that you approach art?

On a first obvious level, it has simply put in question my very notion of art. Studying art history for a BFA in the U.S. focuses almost exclusively on “Western” art which, after living in China, inevitably makes one question the validity of the art narrative put forward by North-American and European museums.

On a deeper level, traveling has also increased my need to resort to art as a means of processing and engaging with the world, because traveling needs a certain degree of poetry, open-mindedness and interpretation that parallels those used in art. When I moved to China I would often come home to people asking me, “So, how is it?” and I felt like it was hopelessly impossible to properly answer. That kind of question cannot do justice to thousands of years of history and over a billion people in just a few words. Good writers and poets can probably use words to try to answer this, but I cannot. So I resorted to art, where I can use different mediums and where I can use time as a language and employ ambiguity as part of the meaning.

How do you think traveling changes people’s perception and perspective?

When you are confronted with different languages, logic and values you inevitably have to put your own language, logic and values in question. You learn very important life lessons: getting comfortable being uncomfortable, being wrong, recognizing your limitations and false preconceptions, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, realizing that you can never fully realize, etc… These are all lessons that can be learned in other ways of course, but traveling puts them in your face a little more explicitly and often beautifully.

My grandfather would often tell me this story after I left France, about a man who traveled somewhere new for a week and was so excited that he wrote a book. He then went back for a month to learn more and wrote an essay. He went back to live there for a year and wrote a poem. And then he moved there, and wrote nothing at all. I think of this story all the time when I travel: about how humbling it is to realize that the more you learn the more you realize how little you know. The world would be quite different if we all acknowledged that.

How has the current political climate affected your work?

I would not say it drastically changed it but it certainly precipitated it in an already existing direction — one that seeks something global, something widely accessible, and that tries to understand different sides of a narrative. On a national level, the situation in the U.S. has specifically made me keener on reaching a wider and younger audience.

I did a residency in a school in Knoxville, Tennessee last February, right after the Trump presidency began and around the same time as the first travel ban was attempted. I was curious about how an elementary and high school environment would address the current political climate and quickly realized that it was, most of the time, not being addressed at all. This is due to teachers not being allowed to share their biases and because, in this country, politics are not a mandatory subject.

There, I felt like my projects filled a vacuum. I never addressed the political situation directly but everyone, students included, quickly made connections. They would see Trump talk about countries like Mexico, Iran and China on TV and that same week we would do projects blind-drawing world maps, plotting global love maps, recognizing the shape of other countries and talking about how nobody chooses where they are born. We had discussions as a class that included both teachers and students, and without even having to name the president we could talk about politics with a freedom that I don’t think could be found anywhere else in school. It felt urgent and relieving and is something I want to pursue in other places.

Generally, do you think art becomes politicized unintentionally or do people attach a meaning to it that is not there?

I think there is a bit of both and that artists need to be aware of that when they conceive of artworks. We have certain intentions and if we do our research, understand our audience and foresee the context in which our work will be experienced then we can hope our intentions will carry through the work. However, people will always inevitably attach other meanings to the work, and we cannot always control where our work will be seen. For me, that is also part of the point of making work — to spur a conversation with the world. I strive to do enough background work to avoid detrimental misinterpretations, but also leave enough room for productive interpretations and associations.

For one of your projects you read one autobiography per country in the world. Why did you choose the books that you did? Did you have any favorites?

I am still very far from having finished this project! It’s on-going. I decided to specifically read autobiographies (as opposed to regular biographies) because I wanted to hear stories from people’s own mouths. It is usually easier to put yourself in a stranger’s shoes if they speak in the first person. This choice is also addressing the fact that all history is biased anyways, so why not at least know exactly where the bias is coming from. As far as the specific book choices go, I ask for recommendations, as much as possible, from people I know from different countries. But sometimes I have just picked up a book in a bookstore, or read about it somewhere, or learned about a personality and looked for their autobiography. I have many favorites but the one that probably affected me the most was Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog because, unlike reading books from countries I know nothing about, this book gave me an alternative narrative to one I thought I was quite familiar with. Reading about U.S. American history from a Native-American perspective was like traveling to a familiar place with a completely different body and is something everyone should do with their own home country.

Through your research, have you come to any conclusions about borders and boundaries?

It’s a never-ending set of research so the only conclusions I would dare to draw is that they are extremely flawed, shockingly biased, unfairly influential and that each border “story” always has at least 2 sides… if not 20!

What are you currently inspired by?

Everything I see, read and hear. That’s also why I try to read from different countries and travel to different places. I currently feel slightly hypocritical living in New York and talking about the whole world. I feel the need to live the everyday life of somewhere else. So right now I am perhaps most inspired by the possibility of relocating and giving my comfort zone a good little shake.

*Photos by Rudolf Costin

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