I was first introduced to multi-media artist Christine Gedeon through her site-specific installation at the new Greenpoint events space Dobbin St. and soon learned her wealth of work includes complex sound installations referencing her Syrian heritage and family, stitched cartography, and celebrity “blueprint drawings.”
We recently discussed her process and approach when working in these various mediums, specifically her relationship to Syria and her family there during this now 5-year civil war. We also talk about Greenpoint, naturally, and how it reminds Gedeon of mid-90s Prague.
Greenpointers: What is you favorite thing about Greenpoint?
Christine Gedeon: What I love, especially about Greenpoint are the low buildings, the light, and the mix of cultures. The Polish community that was of course more present in the 90s and earlier, also for me had it’s charm, as I was living in Prague in 1996-97 and felt immediately comfortable in Greenpoint. If there had been a better connection to public transportation, I probably would’ve stayed there, but then again, so would many others, and that would’ve made it lose it’s character…
You were born in Aleppo, Syria, and raised in New Jersey… Can you tell us about the inception and process to create your work Syria..as my mother speaks… The 5-year civil war there is just devastating… can you give us some insight to the country and culture and how that fits into your work and everyday identity?
Yes, well, seeing what was happening as the war started, and how affected I was by it, I felt compelled to do a piece that had a more personal story, than what one was just hearing on the news… We left Aleppo in the 1970s when I was three years old, and moved to the U.S, for no other reason than my parents getting divorced, and there were more opportunities [in the U.S.] for my newly divorced mother. It was quite easy to move to the U.S. as Jimmy Carter was president, and my uncle sponsored us, so we obtained our green card right away, and became citizens some years later.
When the war started in Syria, my mother and I would speak about it all the time. As you can imagine, it was a big shock for my entire family. My mother is a great storyteller, and she would speak of her memories of Syria as well as the situation my relatives were in who were still there. She and her siblings had quite nice childhoods when she was growing up there. Syria was a different place then as it was under the French Mandate, so her education was all in French, and she described the atmosphere in Aleppo, as having a European influence, reading French literature, philosophy, wearing the latest fashions… There was also religious harmony among Muslims and Christians. Many people don’t realize how, even up to the civil war, Syria was secular. And the government respected the freedom of worship.There are many churches sitting alongside mosques, and there wasn’t an issue concerning the Christians and Muslims in society, as there were even Christians that held government positions there.
As I was listening to these conversations, I realized how important it is to share these stories, and I started to record them, and then worked with a Danish sound artist Bent Bøgedal Christoffersent in creating this sound installation, as a way of lamenting the war, as well as the popular musical tradition that was part of the Syrian culture.
Have you ever gone back to visit Syria?
I went back to visit Syria in 2006 and stayed with my cousins in Aleppo and Damascus. I was so touched by how beautiful the country was, especially Aleppo. The people were so hospitable, and there were clubs and bars that could’ve even been in any other western city. They were playing techno, people were dancing, smoking, drinking – the only thing one had to fear was speaking out against the government. Everywhere one would go, there would be posters of Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad, to instill that fear. If people complied and were not against the regime, then they were ok.
My identity has also always been mixed, as I never felt completely Syrian, or completely American, although I grew up here. The war has made me realize how Syria is my homeland, the place where the accumulation of all my family’s history was built. Sadly, that has all disappeared.
It seems that a bulk of your work is site-specific, installations… The Splits and Skylines, site-specific installation at Dobbin St., for example… what is the relationship there, between a space and your work… does one yield to the other? Does your work look for a home or does the home inform the work?
Usually it’s a dialogue between the space and the work. I have to connect with the space in some way and have a visual in my head as I get started. I work improvisationally and the work starts to come alive through that. With Splits and Skylines, for example, when Terry Walshe [at Dobbin St.] showed me the wall he wanted me to do something on, I felt immediately inspired by the split that broke up the space and divided the wall, and that helped dictate the work.
Your stitched works include themes of “the city” and cartography, urban planning… they keep some of their cartographic context yet appear playful and childlike, far from pragmatic… Some titles reference the location featured while some are numbered… are you making up these spaces?
The pieces that are titled with just a number are the first ones I did in this series, creating imaginary topographical plans that are inspired by maps, and the various lines a sewing machine can make. Later, I started to look at actual places and the changing landscape in New York City, like DUMBO, Gowanus, Chelsea… and I used those as starting points in creating those pieces, but they are still done through improvisation. I was interested in merging the technical aspect of architectural plans and maps, with a more painterly playful quality.
And then your Blueprint Drawings do something else, taking a pose of famous individuals and scrutinizing them through architectural motifs… are there secret architects designing and dictating our posture and body language? The “Great Architect of the Universe”??
I find that reducing these images to their essence with the absent of ornamentation and seeing them just as lines, especially in the political images I used, helps one decipher the meaning more accurately. Maybe the viewers are also architects of the universe in their interpretation of the meaning that is deduced. The ones that took celebrities, i.e. Paris Hilton, and her friends, plays with that as well, where the blueprints seem like a plan for their essence, while simultaneously they become an analysis of what already exists.
You worked as a Web Designer and Post-Production Artist for 7 years at Polo Ralph Lauren… how does one balance a “day job” with creative endeavors? How can someone build a path towards working full-time as an artist?
I’ve been lucky that I always freelanced and didn’t have to work a regular full-time job. Some freelance gigs can be full-time for many months, part time for years, and a bit here and there. It depends, but this flexibility allows me to have time to work on art. Although, when I do have long-term freelance gigs that are full-time it makes it very hard to focus on my work, and it gets pushed aside.
I think one needs a lot of discipline to be able to manage both, and long-term I don’t know how much work I would’ve been able to do if I didn’t have that flexibility.
To see more of Christine Gedeon’s work, visit her website.