Brooklyn, NYThe Brooklym Museum
October 4, 2019 – May 3, 2020
David Foster Wallace once said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” The same could be said of JR’s art, which over the years has combined photography, video, social practice, street art, and social media to tell the stories of women, children, and men the world over, with a particular focus on the poor and the obscure. JR has come under criticism for what some describe as a superficial response to suffering, but he performs an important role in simply bearing witness. Inverting the usual media calculus that focuses on the rich and famous, JR gives his attention to society’s invisibles, and the cumulative impact of their hopes and trials strikes with the force of a tidal wave. Although he is one of the world’s best-known anonymous artists, maybe second only to Banksy, JR: Chronicles is his first museum show to date. The Brooklyn Museum’s installation encompasses the breadth of his career, from his earliest project, Portrait of a Generation (2004–6), to his most recent, The Chronicles of New York City (2019), which occupies the central gallery.
Starting out as a graffiti artist in Paris and its banlieues—the suburbs that house so many low-income immigrants—JR quickly realized that his real calling was documenting, through photography, the lives of those who inhabit the city’s grittier neighborhoods. Portrait of a Generation was the public project that launched his reputation. Partnering with the filmmaker Ladj Ly, JR made portraits of people in the housing projects of two adjoining neighborhoods outside Paris: Les Bosquets in Montfermeil and La Forestière in Clichy-sous-Bois, both notorious for high unemployment and crime. With Lidj Ly, a native of Les Bosquets, he pasted posters of the portraits in both the streets of Paris and the subjects’ neighborhoods. An exemplary image, 28 Millimètres, Portrait d’une Génération, Braquage (Holdup), Ladj Ly (2004), shows JR’s partner shouldering his camera like a weapon. Characteristic of JR’s early portraits, the image walks a fine line between light-hearted and confrontational.
Portrait of a Generation blew up when JR’s images became backdrops for many of the images the French press used to cover the 2005 uprisings in the Parisian banlieues. The next year, JR decided to shoot new portraits of his earlier subjects, with the aim of subverting their negative representations in the media. In these works, we see the inhabitants of the banlieues mugging for the camera with exaggerated expressions of hostility and aggression, playing with dehumanizing stereotypes that had objectified them in the popular imagination. Montfermeil and Clichy-sous-Bois became touchstones for JR’s practice, as he returned again in 2013 and 2017 for more portraits.
In the years following Portrait of a Generation, JR engaged various communities outside of France. Face 2 Face (2006–7) took JR and his friend Marco to the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Using Portrait of a Generation as a template, they took pictures of Israelis and Palestinians with similar professions, and, in a year of sharp conflict, illegally pasted their large-scale portraits on the wall separating the two countries. At the Brooklyn Museum, an entire gallery wall shows an image of the original installation, capturing its monumental scale. Fittingly, portraits of local religious leaders from all three Abrahamic religions make appearances. For the Women are Heroes (2008–14) project, JR traveled to Brazil, Cambodia, India, Kenya, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to record the lives of women enduring homelessness, civil war, domestic abuse, and more. In the gallery, there are videos of the women telling their stories. What they relate is often grim and heartbreaking, but we feel their strength and dignity in trying to make better lives for themselves despite huge obstacles.
The impact of social media vastly expanded JR’s reach, while allowing a two-way conversation to develop. Inside Out (2011–ongoing) allows communities around the world to send images that JR’s studio processes and sends back as posters for local interventions. In addition, a website platform publishes these actions online for global dissemination. Since its inception, Inside Out has published over 400,000 portraits in 141 countries. In the present exhibition, a bank of video screens in a darkened gallery gives a sampling of some of the issues brought to light through this project: the plight of sex workers in New Mexico, Afghan refugees in Belgium, and many others.
JR: Chronicles also features projects about San Francisco, gun violence, the US-Mexico border, and, as previously mentioned, New York City. My favorite, however, was The Wrinkles of the City (2008–15), which narrates the lives of older city dwellers who have experienced the ravages of the 20th century. One video featured four seniors in Istanbul. Their reminiscences against the backdrop of that ancient but ever-shifting city made for an especially poignant and poetic experience. There is a world of stories to connect with in the Brooklyn Museum’s sprawling retrospective. Go find yours.