For JR, no gallery is big enough. The photographer, filmmaker, activist and street artist uses the world’s great cities as his personal canvas. But size has nothing to do with ego here. In JR’s hands, extreme size is a tool: blithely slinking past his huge photocopied facial close-ups that grow, climb, sprawl across entire neighbourhoods is well-nigh impossible.
”Inside Out”: inhabitants of the West Bank town of Nablus.
The Parisian artist uses industrial-strength paste and countless square metres of paper to give a voice to those whose existences vanish amid the daily tumult of the world’s biggest cities. Like in Rio de Janeiro’s oldest favela – or slum - Morro da Providência, where huge, alert eyes stared out from apartment house walls and corrugated tin roofs in the form of massive photocopies.
Occupants of the Brazilian favelas step out of anonymity: the flesh-and-blood people who live here are given a face.
JR installed the work following the murders of three young men from the community. The eyes were those of mothers, aunts or girlfriends, with whom JR had conversed for days on end. Their stares, by turns joyful, terrified, sad or defiant, instantly rid the slum of its pervasively threatening atmosphere. Desperation and crime certainly exist, but beyond it there are flesh-and-blood individuals living here with their own thoughts, fears and dreams. The invisible couldn’t have been rendered visible in a more powerful, consistent manner.
Sadness on a massive scale: an image of a murder victim’s relative graces a stairway in a Brazilian favela.
JR is equally at ease talking with gang members, mothers in mourning, or outsiders consumed by rage. During their rebellion, he equipped youths in the Parisian projects with a voice that stood in stark contrast to the stereotypes promulgated by the nightly news. He made Arabs and Jews laugh, then plastered their joyful faces right next to each other in Israel and the West Bank: “Face2Face” was essentially one big communal guffaw.
Overcoming hostility through laughter: a JR poster adorns the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians.
JR’s latest project, “Inside Out”, involves participants creating their own photo and accompanying statement and mailing it to JR, who sends back a printed, blown-up poster version. Participants then head out in search of suitable hometown locations to paste up their pictures. It’s adventure and performance all rolled into one.
Young people in Tokyo participate with the same zeal as do members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who are busy disseminating their portraits throughout the prairie. “It’s easy to go on Facebook and say, ‘I like this and I don’t like that.’ But to actually stand by your own picture when it’s sitting there in the middle of the street for everyone to see, that’s a different level altogether.”