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French Street Artist JR Awakens History With His 'Unframed – Elils Island' Exhibition
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French Street Artist JR Awakens History With His 'Unframed – Elils Island' Exhibition

Picture of Rachael Silverstein
Updated: 12 December 2015
New York residents are selective with what they choose to wait in lines for, especially if those lines do not involve Shake Shack or cronuts. Waiting in line to pick up ferry tickets, then waiting in another line to board an Ellis Island ferry with hundreds of tourists, is not appealing—unless of course it involves an art exhibit from world-renowned French street artist JR.

JR uses his art to “turn the world inside out” and encourage dialogue. JR is known for using blown up images of people in compelling and engaging ways, and the Ellis Island Immigration Hospital opened its rusty doors to his ‘Unframed – Ellis Island’ exhibition in late 2014. He uses archival photographs of doctors, nurses, and patients that worked, passed through, and even died in the hospital. The hospital complex has broken windows, peeling paint, decrepit furniture, hanging light fixtures, and semi-destroyed walls that provide unobstructed views of the Statue of Liberty.

Natural light shines through, illuminating and casting beautiful shadows upon the abandoned—but not forgotten—complex. The non-profit organization Save Ellis Island works not only to preserve the buildings of Ellis Island, but also to makes sure that the stories and discoveries made there are reinvigorated and shared. Save Ellis Island considers the story of Ellis Island the story of America.

National Park Service Rangers and volunteers currently lead the Hard Hat Tour, which is the only way to see JR’s exhibit at the hospital. Tour participants are required to wear hard hats as they explore the building; the second floor of the hospital has been deemed unsafe for visitors, so the JR installations located there are not accessible to the public at this time. It is expected in late fall of 2015 that the second floor will be open as part of the Hard Hat Tour.

The tour begins in a barricaded area where unsupervised wandering is not allowed. Upon entering the hospital the guide provides hard hats and explains the safety concerns of the building. Broken glass, wooden planks, bricks, and other debris are scattered along the floors, and everyone must walk carefully to avoid injury. Shortly after receiving hard hats, tour goers are ushered into the former laundry room, and the exploration of the building, and excitement of discovering JR’s pieces, begins. The placement of the archived photographic transfers add to the engrossing atmosphere. The images are not fully opaque, creating a ghost-like presence. They are worked around broken glass and doorways, and often have been fit into spaces which do not allow for the full original image to be seen.

According to Janis Calella, the president of Save Ellis Island, one of the major reasons the organization opted for JR’s proposal was to reach younger audiences. While the JR exhibit is breathtaking, eerie, exciting, and haunting, not all National Park Service Rangers who lead the tour are particularly knowledgeable about JR, his artistic vision, and his global portfolio. The tour is not specifically designed for audiences interested in JR’s work but as a historical tour which gives brief moments to JR’s photographic installations. The historical significance of the Ellis Island Hospital is not to be brushed aside, but the lack of focus on the exhibition may leave tour goers disappointed. Had the tour been designed with an art-focused audience in mind, it would have been a more enjoyable experience for those going primarily to see JR’s work.

It is important that tour goers plan ahead to reach Ellis Island. The tour’s website instructs tour goers arrive one hour prior to the tour’s start time at the Battery Park ferry. It can take up to two hours to arrive to the tour due to long lines and slow moving ferries on a Saturday in late July. The tour and exhibition provide an immersive visual and sensory experience loaded with historical significance. It is not to be missed!

By Rachael Silverstein

A Buffalo native, Rachael adopted New York City as her home in 2008 and has been exploring the five boroughs through her camera ever since. Rachael works as a freelance photographer at Rachael Elana Photography and is a passionate traveler, Francophile, foodie, runner, and bookworm. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.