Immigration policy and the refugee crisis are subjects that have been central to JR’s practice for the past seven years, most notably, perhaps, in the film he co-directed with Robert de Niro, Ellis (2015), and the project Unframed – Ellis Island (2014). The latter work involved pasting archival images of real people who journeyed to Ellis Island during the early 20th century across the interiors of the haunting former hospital building where medical tests for new arrivals were administered.
“Some people traveled the world to get there, in terrible conditions, and when they arrived, they were denied access. They could see the city, and then had to go all the way back, where there’s not necessarily a life for them anymore,” JR explains. This past, which resonates in the present moment, inspired the title of the work. “So Close, yet so far,” he reflects.
So Close originated through a commission at Ellis Island in early 2017, when JR was asked to mount a work on the façade of the hospital. Given the context, amidst the ever-worsening refugee crisis and President Trump’s proposal that individuals from seven Muslim-majority nations be banned from entering the U.S., JR was keen to represent present-day refugees at Ellis Island. But officials would only give him permission to use archival images, not contemporary imagery. “But I wanted to make a statement about today,” he emphasizes. So he had to get creative—and a bit sneaky.
“It’s a discussion we’re having in France, across Europe, and all over the world,” he said. “Doing a pasting on Ellis Island and not being able to talk about the current moment sounded crazy.”
JR and his team got permission to travel to the Zaatari camp on the Syrian border in April 2017. They brought with them the archival images of people at Ellis Island, and decided to meet with refugees and seek out individuals who could pass for the immigrants captured in those archival images. Photoshop editing would handle the rest.