What’s left of visual art when one takes away the galleries?
French multimedia artist Jean René provides a dynamic new answer to this question. In recent years, René (or JR, as he prefers to call himself) has achieved notoriety for his unique brand of street art: JR photographs the inhabitants of various communities, then blows these images up on a colossal scale and pastes them to various urban structures.
The significance of these art pieces often derives from their locations. In his 2007 project Face 2 Face, JR took portraits of Israeli and Palestinian citizens making funny faces, then pasted them along the wall which divides Israel and Palestine. By pasting these photos right at the source of such a tension-fraught conflict, JR managed to humanize the issue and call attention to the ways in which Israelis and Palestinians are similar. JR says he was warned against doing the project, but that people’s reactions have made him glad he went through with it: his goal was to inspire laughter and curiosity, and pictures of citizens’ reactions to the work reveal that he succeeded.
In another piece, titled Portrait of a Generation, JR took pictures of poor youths from the suburbs of Paris and pasted them up in the bourgeois districts of Paris on the heels of the 2006 youth riots in the city. Many older inhabitants of Paris didn’t approve of the riots, but JR reasoned that if he put up quirky and endearing portraits of the kids, he might be able to change some minds. JR didn’t stop there, however. Many of the youths he worked with for the project came from the same housing project, Les Bosquets, and when the French authorities condemned this project a few years after the exhibition of, JR decided to pay the building a formal farewell. He and his team entered the building the night before the demolition and painted huge replicas from the faces of Portrait of a Generation – a set of eyes in one room, a mouth in another – so that the full faces were revealed as the cranes ate away at the building.
Later, in 2009, JR began to display work on a global scale. His 2009 project Women Are Heroes includes portraits of women from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Kenya, Brazil, India, Cambodia, and beyond. The photos have been displayed on the walls of churches and mosques, the sides of buses, trains, favela walls and stairwells, and even on the bottom of an empty swimming pool. JR often uses the location of these portraits to tell a specific story; for example, one woman he photographed had only recently broken free from a life sifting through trash in a dump on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. JR pasted her photographed eyes to the side of a rubbish truck so that she could gaze out at the life she left behind.
By choosing to exhibit his portraits in the locations and communities that benefit most from its message, JR utilizes art not only for visual enjoyment but also to encourage tolerance and bring people together. His worldwide approach gives us a glimpse as to the future of twenty-first century art. After all, in the age of globalization and social justice, the roof of a building’s the limit!