Interview: JR

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Famous street artist JR talks to Ysabelle Cheung about the ghosts and the stories that drive him ahead of his shows in Hong Kong


Portrait courtesy of Galerie Perrotin; images courtesy of Galerie Perrotin,
Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation, National Archives, USA, and the artist

'Paper and glue: as easy as that'. This was a statement made by artist JR (a pseudonym) in March 2012 at his TED talk in Long Beach, California. By this time, the incognito Parisian-born ‘photograffeur’ had been pasting up photographs and portraits, challenging the commercial-monopolised landscapes of the streets, for over a decade already.

For JR, figuring out his modus operandi really was simple: art is for the people, as easy as that. The 2012 TED talk bookended a year of his Inside Out project, in which he invited participants from across the world to create their own portrait installations, from the snap of the shutter to large-scale exposure, in a public space. For years he had seen the world through the narrative lens of his camera, jumping from favela to shanty town to conflicting territories around the Israeli West Bank barrier, framing his projects with the stories of the people in the focus point. Inside Out (still ongoing) provided him with the opportunity to let others see the world as he did: brimming with a panoply of complex and human stories that reveal to us instantly, like confronting one of his works on the street, that we are all more alike than unlike.

The 32-year-old does not play by gallery, fair or art world rules. From his teenage tags and throw-ups to flyposting human faces on the canvas of the streets, which he calls ‘the largest art gallery in the world’, his commentary is simple yet incisive as he touches upon the way we recognise and react to art. Recently, he’s been exploring Ellis Island’s Immigrant Hospital, an abandoned building that once housed new immigrants, bringing back to life the histories of the families and cultural diasporas that form contemporary American society. We talk to the people’s artist before he opens two shows in Hong Kong: a small preview of the Ellis Island project, and a comprehensive review exhibition in 6,800sq ft space in Repulse Bay.

You seem to be omnipresent – on this street, that street, that wall, that gallery. How many of you are there in your team?
My team is built up of my very close friends. I’m fortunate enough to have an amazing team that is able to travel with me when needs be, which really makes me feel at home wherever I am. I am mainly on the road, but there are still team members scattered all over the globe, from Los Angeles to Osaka.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about freedom of expression and the right of people to air their views. How did you feel when the Charlie Hebdo attacks [where 11 people, including cartoonists and journalists, were killed by terrorists on January 7] occurred?
As an artist my only answer to violence is to create work that reconnects people: a small drop in the ocean – if you will – but for me it’s the only way.

Your work has always unified people through the simple yet powerful act of art. When did you discover that power?
I realised this when I pasted the portraits of the habitants of Clichy-Montfermeil [the suburbs of Paris]. The people there had a reputation they didn’t deserve and I pasted their faces in the bourgeois areas of Paris, evoking questions of identity. Their reputation had been distorted by the media and the pastings of their portraits allowed them to take back control of their image. The public viewers interacted with the work and created the impact. This was called Portraits of a Generation.


Unframed, Children treated in the Ellis Island hospital, 2014

Was there ever a story that was more powerful than the image?
The narrative will always be more powerful than the image. For me the image is just a conductor to get another perspective of a people living in a community. Like in Brazil, for the Women Are Heroes project. We were pasting in Moro de Providencia – a place overcome by guns, drugs and gang lords. The media can’t even enter. So our pastings were a way for the media to enter the culture of the town, their stories, their true identity, coming out from behind the wall of violence and corruption. And part of the exercise was to create an image so big that people couldn’t ignore it, and I feel culture should use the same tools to get people to be heard in a positive way. It is crazy to think that we have to go even bigger than advertising to accomplish this.

You’re showing a huge survey in Hong Kong with the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation. How did you put together the pieces for this?
I’ve added some rare pieces so thatI could give a range of my work.The main show this year in Hong Kong will be the HOCA show so we plan to really concentrate on the experience of the public in not only viewing a larger collection of mine but also being able to participate in the exhibition. [An Inside Out photobooth is installed
at the exhibition.]

Along with works from Portraits of a Generation and Women are Heroes, you’ll be showing archive pieces from The Inside Out Project. How many people have participated in this to date?
Over 200,000, but there are many people who lead their own projects and print the posters themselves. Observing how the Inside Out project has spread into communities I have never been to has been the strongest proof for me that art is needed in places we never imagine.

You’ll also be presenting Ghosts of Ellis Island at Perrotin. How did the ‘ghosts’ of the patients affect you?
Ellis Island has been a special adventure for me. I went into this process of going through all the archive images of Ellis Island and realised that there were few photos of that time. In fact, I discovered that most of the images were staged because it was already a traumatising trip for the people to travel; asking them to be photographed upon their arrival was too much. Although it represents the historical issue of immigration, it is still very much a current issue around the world. Like when I went to Lampedusa [a European port for African, Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants] and witnessed the ‘Ellis Island’ of today.

We heard you also collaborated with a few artists for this too.
I just worked with Art Spiegelman on the book titled The Ghosts of Ellis Island. I love collaborating with other artists on the same subject. But here, with Art, his drawings bring another light that seems to come from the deep past – they work in an interesting way with the current state of Ellis Island and the immigration issues today. The Perrotin show will be the first time the book will be presented.  [Available  in April.] 

JR: A Survey Exhibition The Ocean, 3/F, 28 Beach Rd, Repulse Bay, Mar 15-Apr 12, Wed-Sun 3pm-10pm; facebook.com/hocafoundation.

Ghosts of Ellis Island. An Unframed Project, Short Preview Galerie Perrotin, Mar 12-Apr 25; perrotin.com.

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