The streets are his gallery: French artist JR covers walls and streets with huge photographs, bringing to prominence the faces of people who would otherwise remain invisible. The man in the hat has one overall goal: He wants to change the world. Our reporter met up with him in New York City
Outside New York City is roaring and buzzing, a permanent projection surface made up of urban canyons and skyscrapers. Inside sitting on a sofa, is JR – the French poster artist, photographer and activist. “Does size matter?” I ask him. In response, he holds out an oversized illustrated book. On it, a counter-question is emblazoned: “Can Art Change the World?” The massive tome collates his wide-ranging oeuvre to date. JR has already put up huge posters in Brazilian favelas, has glued images on gigantic container ships, and has covered the outside walls of houses in Berlin and parts of the wall between Israel and the West Bank with his photographs. This year at the end of May, he also enveloped the pyramid in the inner courtyard of the Louvre in Paris with his work. For an artist, it does not get much bigger than that.
JR jumps up from the sofa. “It is not a question of size,” he explains, “but of the surroundings in which I situate my art.” In some cities, his images have to compete with huge, loud and garishly colorful advertisements. On the gray concrete wall at the Israeli border, however, a few small posters suffice to attract people’s attention. We are in JR’s studio in New York’s Nolita neighborhood. In his visitors’ book, his guests have left messages for posterity. They, too, are preoccupied with the question whether art can change the world. “Hell, f**k, yeah,” enthuses one of them. “I hope so,” writes another. I cannot decipher the contribution left by French president François Hollande, but he was here, without any press or cameras. I ask JR what he was like, the president. “I don’t judge people, at least not on their politics. If someone wants to pay me a visit and talk to me, they are very welcome,” says the artist.
We go downstairs to the studio. Here, three of his employees are working on large wooden walls on which – little by little – people’s faces seem to appear. The team glue a printed photo face-down onto the wood and begin the precise, painstaking work of removing the paper layer by layer, until only the ink remains. In some places, where the paper has already been taken off, eyes look back at the observer. On some of the other wooden walls smiles are emerging through the remnants of the paper. JR gives visibility to underdogs. His art gives prominence to the faces of people who would otherwise be overlooked.
In April 2015 he began his struggle for attention in the birthplace of advertising. His stage was the plaza in front of the Flatiron Building in the heart of Manhattan. In partnership with the New York Times, JR wanted to draw attention to the situation of migrants in New York City. He photographed Elmar Aliyev, an immigrant from Azerbaijan (who was 20 at the time), and filled the triangular square between Broadway and Fifth Avenue with his 45-meter photograph. To the business people, tourists and everyone else who walked across the image throughout the following days, however, Elmar remained invisible. Seen from the eye-level of the average pedestrian the photograph simply looked like a massive, gray blur. But the more distance you put between yourself and images of this magnitude, the more clearly you can see them. Viewed from the penthouse terrace, only Elmar was visible; everyone else had shrunk to the size of fleas. JR designs public spaces in an XXL format, but his visual tricks and techniques also work well in a virtual setting.
I am standing in the middle of his studio. The artist hands me an Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset produced by Facebook. He plugs in his smartphone and the headphones from my voice recorder. My eyes perceive profound darkness and my ears nothing but silence. All of a sudden JR reappears in front of me, but now no longer wearing the white T-shirt he was in just a few seconds ago. Instead he has donned a blue denim shirt and sunglasses. It takes me a few seconds to realize that I am in a 3-D movie. Above, below and behind me, I see a virtual world. In it, I accompany JR through his studio, to the photo shoot with Elmar and to Flatiron Plaza. There, I watch the artist and his team glue Elmar’s gigantic poster to the ground.
They printed out the image on hundreds of sheets of paper, which they are now putting in place strip by strip. All of a sudden I hear a loud rattling noise – it’s a helicopter right beside me. JR is squatting down in the open door and photographs something just below us. I look down and all of a sudden I am no longer standing in Flatiron Plaza. Under my feet there is only air, a few clouds and Manhattan’s high-rise buildings. Somewhere further down, there is solid ground, the plaza featuring Elmar’s photograph.
Cut. The opened illustrated book lies in front of us again. A photo shows a mighty container ship, from which two huge eyes look back at the French port city of Le Havre. He is not interested in breaking records, says JR, but it is likely that he has already broken quite a few: It took him and his team ten days to attach 2,600 meters of paper strips to the 363-meter ship and its hundreds of containers, even with the dock workers helping out. The work forms part of the “Women are Heroes” project. It is dedicated to women all over the world “who play an important part in their societies, and nevertheless become the victims of war, sexual violence or religious fanaticism every day,” says JR.
The Frenchman approached his first artistic experiments in the same way many other teenagers do. At the age of 16, he climbed through the metro shafts and over the roofs of Paris leaving his tag – a scribbled trademark – on the walls. To this day he owns a copy of the master key used by French mailmen, which provides him with access to the stairwells of almost every building in the city. At the age of 17, JR found a digital camera that someone had left behind on the Paris metro, and started photographing his friends spray-painting graffiti. He then put up these photographs on the outside walls of buildings and on building site fences, and called the project “Expo 2 rue” – street gallery.
Can art change the world? F**k, yeah!
Despite having studied economics and photography since those days, JR uses more or less the same artistic method, only the dimensions have changed. 260,000 people from 129 countries have already taken part in his huge “Inside Out” project. Here, it is no longer JR who selects the subjects. Instead, the participants photograph themselves and send the images to his studio in New York. JR’s employees then take care of the logistics. They print each picture on A0-size paper and send it back to the participant. The only condition is that the person must feel strongly about a particular cause and must be supported by 50 people who also care about the issue. It is poster art with a snowball effect. “Previously we were happy with five supporters,” explains JR. “But we saw that people just kept the posters for themselves. The more individuals are involved, the stronger the element of social control.” A collage of 4,000 portraits has even made it to the North Pole. The group responsible for this wanted to draw attention to the environmental damage done to the Arctic. A similar initiative in Pakistan was dedicated to women working in the textile industry. In Paris 4,000 faces covered the dome and floor of the Pantheon. In Tunisia, following the Arab Spring, activists campaigned for more mutual respect with the aid of JR’s art.
In his New York studio there is a huge printer that produces the portraits forwarded for “Inside Out.” It hums and churns out large-format sheets of paper every minute. His colleagues in the studio wear a uniform: a white T-shirt, jeans and simple sneakers. Is that a coincidence? “I can’t stand logos,” says JR, throwing a quick glance my way. Thankfully, my black T-shirt is devoid of any symbols. “We work strictly without sponsors and finance every project ourselves,” he explains. To make this possible, the studio also produces smaller-scale works with small print runs, which are sold in galleries. JR also markets lithographs on a website, which are produced in a small print shop in France. The works cost between 540 and 2,760 euros. Each copy is numbered and features JR’s signature in the bottom right-hand corner.
Only JR’s friends know his real name. “The letters stand for my initials, but I play around with the meaning,” he says. “I was once asked to wear a name tag at an event and they insisted on me putting down a first and last name. So I wrote ‘Juste Ridicule’ (just ridiculous) on the tag.” Using the pseudonym allows him to travel under his legal name to countries where he may not be welcome as an artist. This is similar to the approach taken by British artist Banksy, the godfather of political street art whose identity is unknown to this day. JR’s disguise consists of a hat and sunglasses, like a sort of hipster Fantômas. As he pushes his moped out of the studio into the street, I wonder whether he also has a key to all the stairwells in New York. In any case, JR most definitely has his camera on him as he disappears into the Manhattan streets.