Meeting with JR : “Can Art change the World?”
“Art isn’t supposed to change the world but people’s perceptions. Art can change the way in which we see the world.” JR
Who is JR? No, he’s not an oil magnate from Dallas. He doesn’t spend his time sipping whisky on-the-rocks at his ranch, bad-mouthing competing bigwigs! In fact, his world is ruthless – it’s his, it’s mine, it’s ours.
JR is an extremely talented man in a hat and dark glasses, who lives his artistic life as an intrepid adventurer; a man who forgets fear and prejudices and goes where people are suffering, where populations destroy themselves. His work offers a revealing voice, an enlightenment, a first step to reactivate dialogue. His personal weapon is his gaze: immense images fixed in the streets of the entire world in the name of liberty, affirmation of each one’s identity, recognition of the forgotten. Photographer, adventurer, designer, director, and portraitist, he is ready to reinvent himself as a director of actors, or even of ballet, in order to express himself. For JR, the prize isn’t the artistic medium but it’s subject, the vision of his art as a humanist path, his striking and arresting eyes.
From his childhood on, the streets have been his playground to express himself. As an adolescent, he dedicates himself to tags, leaving his mark on city walls. His eureka moment – a sign of fate? – comes barely at the age of eighteen, when JR finds a camera in the parisian metro. He begins to photograph his friends and then to travel in Europe. He becomes interested in street art and those who express themselves on city façades. Eventually, the artist besieges the streets and glues portraits of inspiring people whom he comes across. His illegal exhibitions allow him to be seen by all and to reach “people who don’t go to Museums” (JR).
Also JR demonstrates a stunning aptitude to anticipate events; his first noteworthy project, “Portrait of a Generation,” serves as witness to this. In 2004, with his friend Ladj Ly, he shoots the residents of la Cité des Bosquets at Monfermeil and covers the suburb’s walls with his pictures. In 2005, violent riots break out in that very place. JR discovers his photos, displayed on the buildings a year earlier, in media reports where journalists “demonize” them. Among the pictures is this incredible image of Ladj pointing a gun at the viewer. On closer scrutiny, you realize that it’s actually a camera and not a gun that he holds. The real meaning appears to be very different; the gesture is no longer an aggression but a caricatural staging, a call to reciprocal recognition.
The artist returns to La cite des Bosquets in the heat of the riots to photograph these young “rebels”; he produces portraits full of humanity, of laughters and grimaces in frames fixed on the subjects’ faces. These monumental shots are pasted on the suburb’s walls, but also in Paris streets. JR seeks to show his friends of the suburbs as they really are: far from journalistic caricatures, neither angels nor demons – just young people in search of recognition. One year later the clandestine photos are recognized by the city council of Paris as “Works of Art”, an outstanding victory for JR and his friends who seek to change people’s perceptions of them.
His approach is similar for “Face2Face”, conceived in 2007, with JR’s friend and advisor Marc Berrebi. With this project, JR sets his sights on revealing the humanity of the populations separated by the Wall of Shame in the Near East. He captures laughing and scowling close-ups of Israelis and Palestinians having the same jobs on both sides of the barrier. The portraits are pasted side by side – the two communities reunited – on the houses of Israeli and Palestinian cities, and even on the separating wall.
Next come touching homages to women’s dignity, the primary victims of wars , with “Women are Heroes,” and to elderly people with “The Wrinkles of the City”, which highlights their essential role in the life of our cities
In 2010, JR explores a new artistic approach. Instead of exhibiting his own shots, the artist integrates into his creations the work of famous or anonymous photographers, chosen in museum archives for his project “Unframed.” He thus brings an historical dimension to his work, the past mingling dynamically with today’s cities. “Unframed”s images touch on the sensitive current issue of immigration, pulling instances from yesterday and today. He revives memories of Ellis Island in order to touch on contemporary migration.
“Unframed“, Nurses at Ellis Island Hospital shot by JR, courtesy of Ellis Island Immigration Museum, USA, 2014
His work, invading walls over the world, is drawing attention. In 2011 he receives the TED Prize. The TED is probably one of the most inspiration international prizes of our era, since it rewards those who contribute to “changing the world” with their actions. JR is the first artist and the first French citizen to whom it has been offered. A $100,000 prize for realizing his dream accompanies the prize. JR’s dream? “Inside Out”: a participatory Art project inspired by his large-format portraits pasted in numerous countries. He offers to each one the means to get their image printed in large scale in order to share it as a statement for what they stand for. It’s a project of huge scope: from 2011 to 2015, more than 250,000 people participated in “Inside Out” in more than 120 countries.
“I would like you to stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project, and, together, we will turn the world…INSIDE OUT.” JR
JR is a man of superlatives; he raises spectacular enthusiasm from his large audience. He has the gift of touching us at our core: he’s charismatic, sincere, accessible, exciting, but also playful, with an exquisite humor. In short, he’s a man no one can resist, from the youth of the suburbs to the greatest names in cinema – Robert de Niro, David Lynch, Agnès Varda. I had the opportunity to experiment this myself, last month, in Lausanne. Thanks to the Musée de l’Élysée and its remarkable director Tatyana Franck, I was able to meet the amazing artist during the projection of his two short-films, “Ellis” (with Robert de Niro) and “Les Bosquets.” Already a big fan of his photographic work, I was dazzled by the beauty of his filmmaking as it was projected on the giant screen of Le Capitole.
“Ellis” came out in 2015, completing JR’s photographic work “Unframed: Ellis Island.” It’s a sublime film in which everything comes together and raise a deep emotion: the quality of the pictures, a magnificent snow-white light, a nostalgic atmosphere like a suspended moment; the intimate sound track, in which footsteps and heartbeats resonate. Then a few words, the voice over of the ghost character embodied by Robert de Niro. It’s a story of immigrants fleeing poverty or dictatorship in their home countries, coming for the promise of better life in the United States – those who were approved access to the country of freedom and the wanderers, the rejected ones, whose ghosts still haunt the Ellis Island hospital where the film was shot. In this abandoned institution, the past is present, images fill the walls like perceptible memories; they hang where others waited full of hope; they hang where others died of distress; they hang alongside the faces of immigrants past and present…
ELLIS Trailer (1.5 min). Actor: Robert de Niro / Writer: Eric Roth / Director: JR
The second short film projected was “Les Bosquets” (released 2015 – 17 min). Who would be crazy enough to suddenly act as a ballet director? Who would be audacious enough to bring the whole celebrated New York City Ballet troupe to dance in the core of a shabby Parisian suburb in the process of destruction? Who would be talented enough to make an amazing artwork out of it? The answer: JR.
This short film continues the work that JR has done annually for the past ten years in the city of Bosquets in Monfermeil. In it, he shares his experience with his friend Ladj Ly and other suburban youth. He evokes the 2005 riots as well as the evolution of the place, a kind of no-man’s land. The dancers themselves proposed the steps of the choreography to express JR’s vision. It’s a marvelous example of collaboration. The force of the images and the social violence expressed combine in the divine grace of dance.
Trailer “Les Bosquets” 2015 – Click
Meeting JR means living in a human moment, finding empathy with the world. Through his works, JR places himself beside the victims, often forgotten, the suffering communities. You can’t help but give in to his charm. you admire him for the man he is as well as for what he does, his “engaging” work (as he himself describes it), and his endless quest to change our view of the world.
JR’s Galleries: France, USA, HKong : Galerie Perrotin / Chine : Galerie Magda Danysz / Suisse : Simon Studer Art / Angleterre : Lazarides Rathbone / Allemagne : Galerie Springmann
JR work: JR website
Book: “can Art change the World?” JR : Editions Phaidon