JR Is The French Artist Pushing The Boundaries Of The Urban Canvas

Photo of Phillip Spradley
21 December 2016

Forget Banksy. French urban artist and photographer JR, the 2011 TED Prize winner and UNESCO Prix du Jeune Artiste, creates large-scale street ‘pastings’ by overlaying huge black-and-white photographic images on public spaces that range from the rooftops of Paris to the favelas of Brazil. JR’s art is less focused on the artist’s mark as an individual and more about drawing attention to places and the people who live there.

When JR first started to make public ‘art’, he did it in the form of graffiti in and around Paris; these early forays were self-promoting in that he left his mark by writing his name in graffiti everywhere, using the city as a canvas. Since then, however, JR has combined documentary photography with urban graffiti to draw the world’s attention to individuals whom society opts to overlook or ignore. JR creates these large-scale displays by wheat-pasting photos of the human face across massive sheets of paper and displaying them on urban buildings.

According to JR, his transition from graffiti to photography occurred partly by chance. During one excursion JR found a camera in the train tunnels and started documenting his adventures through photography. He then pasted these photographs around the streets of Paris and framed them with spray paint so that the images would not be confused with advertising. At 17, JR had his first ‘Sidewalk Gallery’ show of these photographic ‘pastings’. In 2001, for his first major project outside of Paris, JR toured and photographed street art around Europe and spoke with fellow graffiti artists for whom the city served as canvas.

In the autum of 2005, riots broke out in the notorious banlieues of Paris and images of cars in flames flooded media representation of the events in Clichy-sous-Bois. Yet JR had been there before; a black-and-white photograph pasted on the side of an apartment building showed a black man surrounded by a group of boys striking aggressive poses. What first appears to be a menacing shotgun turns out to be, upon closer inspection, a video camera. This wheat-paste was created for a project by JR from 2004 and brought to the fore the faces of a generation pushed to the outskirts of Paris.

Again in 2006, JR returned to the banlieue to launch Portraits of a Generation, huge-format portraits of Paris’ suburban ‘thugs’. Individuals distort their faces to play the caricature of themselves. These were pasted by JR in the bourgeois districts of Paris with the names, ages, and building numbers of these people. This un-authorised project became official when the Paris Hôtel de Ville wrapped its own building in JR’s photos.

In 2007, JR started a joint-project called Face2Face, which may be considered the biggest illegal photo exhibition ever in amongst the most unexpected of urban canvases – along the wall separating Israel and Palestine. JR and a team from the local community posted huge portraits of Israelis and Palestinians who work the same jobs as taxi drivers, lawyers, cooks, etc. They were asked to make a face as a sign of commitment. These large-scale photographs were pasted in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities, and on both sides of the security fence/separation barrier. According to JR, “Most of the people in the cities could not tell who was who.”

JR embarked on a long international trip in 2008 for his exhibition Women Are Heroes, a project underlining the dignity of women who are the overlooked victims of war, poverty, violence, and oppression. The project took JR to New York, Brazil, London, Brussels, Sierra-Leone, Liberia, Kenya, Sudan, India, Cambodia, and the Philippines. In 2010, the film Women Are Heroes was presented at the Cannes Film Festival and competed for the Caméra d’Or.

JR’s ongoing projects include Unframed, a public project launched in 2009, The Wrinkles of the City, and Inside Out Project. Unframed reinterprets famous photographs and photographers by taking photos from museum archives and exposing them to the world as huge-format photos on the walls of cities. It raises the question of: What is the art piece? Is it the original photo, the pasting by JR, or both?

In 2011, JR was awarded the Ted Prize, which seeks to bring to fruition ‘a bold, creative idea that can inspire widespread support’ through a large cash prize. JR’s wish: “I wish for you to stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project, and together we’ll turn the world…INSIDE OUT” became his latest project, titled Inside Out.

According to its official website, Inside Out is “a global art project transforming messages of personal identity into works of art.” Participants are challenged to use black-and-white photographic portraits to discover, reveal and share the untold stories and images of people around the world. Digitally uploaded images are made into posters and sent back to the project’s co-creators for them to exhibit in their own communities. People can participate as an individual or in a group; posters can be placed anywhere, from a solitary image in an office window to a wall of portraits on an abandoned building or a full stadium.

Recently, film company Breadtruck Films released an award-winning documentary titled Art as a Weapon. Featuring JR, the film is largely devoted to the artist’s Inside Out Project and juxtaposes the art-political dialectic of liberalism and free expression through street art in Burma. The notion of self-expression throughout takes place against a milieu of military rule in the country and JR features as a pioneer of a widespread art campaign that calls on students to join the project. Remarkable and fascinating, this documentary unites many different individuals under one aim: to implement artistic outlets as revolutionary forces.

Between 2008 and 2012, JR has worked on Wrinkles of the City project in Cartagena, Shanghai, Los Angeles, and La Havana. The latest iteration of this project, which was showcased at the 2012 Havana Biennale, was a collaborative project with Cuban-American artist José Parlá. For this series of mural installations, JR and Parlá created moving portraits of 25 senior citizens who had lived through the Cuban revolution. Wrinkles of the City questions the memory of a city and its inhabitants through its prominent display of the faces of the elderly rather than of the nation’s political leaders.

JR creates pervasive art that spreads on uninvited buildings of Parisian slums, on walls in the Middle East, on broken bridges in Africa or in favelas in Brazil. People in these communities, those who often live with the bare minimum, discover something perhaps unnecessary, but altogether wonderful. JR states that, “Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world. Art can create an analogy.”

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