I meet ‘JR’ – his full name remains a well-kept secret – in Shanghai 上海 the day after he was announced the recipient of the prestigious 2011 TED Prize [US$100,000]. The setting is an appropriate one for the French ‘artivist’: a dilapidated urban area teeming with buildings slated for demolition. I see JR and his crew climbing ladders, balancing on air conditioners and pasting huge sheets of paper on walls. By the time we say goodbye, a couple of hours later, CNN and The Guardian have tried to reach him.
During the past week, JR [instagram] has been working on ‘The Wrinkles of the City’ project 城市肌理. His larger-than-life images of the city’s elderly provoke an eerie feeling of time slowly passing, while surrounding structures reveal the reality of a city irreversibly disappearing. Preparing for the project last summer, JR spent time in Shanghai 上海 interviewing and photographing local octogenarians. ‘When you interview people that old,’ he says, ‘you find they’re not very interested in being photographed. A huge blow-up of their face doesn’t amaze them in the same way it might amaze someone of our generation. But they do give you time. During the interviews, I learned a century of history.’ Walking around the site, I watch JR and the crew in action. Someone shouts for glue, a sudden gust of wind tears a sheet of paper, locals viewing the operation offer assistance, photos are taken and, high on the roof of a nearby house, a camera makes a time-lapse video.
Having had loads of experience in precisely this area of creativity, JR produces highly effective work, but, as I mention to him later, he’s also somewhat amateurish and not overly meticulous. ‘What’s important,’ he says, ‘is that I force myself to use the same technique for every project. Black-and-white images go against the code of advertising, paper makes the work accessible and cheap, and it’s a material that lends texture to a wall. The glue and the brush contribute to the kind of work that involves people. If I were to arrive in a city with a team of professionals, I’d miss out on this kind of interaction with the local population.’ Because he’s worked in cities worldwide, under all sorts of circumstances – from the separation barrier that divides Israel and the Palestinian West Bank to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the slums of Phnom Penh – JR’s work touches on sensitive urban issues. In each case, however, he extracts the human element from the context. Because of the grand scale of his work, the result is invariably contemplative, timely and global in its ambition.
I ask JR what he thinks of the state of the city. What do these urban areas say to him? ‘My work relates strongly to architecture, but in a paradoxical way,’ he says, ‘because I go to places with interesting architecture, but I’m there to highlight people. I use architecture as my canvas, while setting up a dialogue with the city in areas where walls are not covered with advertisements. This allows me to get closer to the people. I get into people’s lives, in fact, not by way of politics or advertising, but by way of art and activism.’ When I suggest he might be working in a context that architects fail to take advantage of, he objects. ‘No, I am simply highlighting parts of the city that are linked directly to the architecture and the people. You can’t say architects fail just because people build their own houses.’
The large images pasted on a city’s walls are but one element of JR’s work, which also includes interviews, portrait photos, images of the work in the city, and video work created later and exhibited in galleries all over the world. JR has developed a prodigious portfolio of faces since beginning on the streets of Paris a decade ago. ‘I was into graffiti,’ he says, ‘but I’ve always had a relationship with the city defined by taking without asking, by looking at the city from another angle, by leaving a little mark on society that you can see from the street. It’s always been a little vice of mine.’ If so, it’s a vice that he’s now able to exacerbate with crews numbering about 25 people who show up in cities across the globe. But this is also an artist with a twist. He wants to remain anonymous. ‘No pictures of my face,’ he insists, as he pastes a wrinkled, 10m2-face on a wall.
His request prompts me to ask, teasingly, at the end of the interview: ‘Just to make sure, are you the real JR?’ ‘I hope so. At least I say I am, and these others say they’re not.’ So who is JR? ‘He’s just a guy who helps choose a wall, who takes some photos and sometimes lifts a brush. He’s just one guy – like everyone else on the team – but he’s also the one who shows the direction ahead. If he didn’t, you’d have a whole team that doesn’t know where to go.’
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Other Bert de Muynck | MovingCities articles in MARK Magazine:
A Letter from Beijing | #09 (Jul-Aug 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | #12 (Feb-Mar 08)
Olympic Architecture | #14 (Jun-Jul 08)
Babel for Billionaires | #15 (Aug-Sep 08)
Mongolian Private Meadow Club by MAD | #16 (Oct-Nov 08)
Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker | #17 (Dec-Jan 08-09)
Local Hero | An Interview with Wang Shu (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
The Importance of Slowness | Wang Hui (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
Mr. Blunt | Keiichiro Sako | SAKO Architects | #20 (Jun-Jul 09)
Green and Tidy | mamostudio | #21 (Aug-Sep 09)
Learning from CCTV | An interview with Rory McGowan | #24 (Feb-March 10)
Illegal Copying | #24 (Feb-March 10)
Zhang Lei: I am a Simple Man | #26 (June-July 10)
“Deshaus: Slow Down” | #28 (October-November 10)
(back to movingcities interviews page)