JR Mounts a Towering Monument to Refugees at The Armory Show
JR Mounts a Towering Monument to Refugees at The Armory Show

On an eerily warm afternoon in mid-February, the French street artist JR is in a Bushwick, Brooklyn, warehouse with three members of his artistic team. Clad in matching, deep-green jumpsuits, they’re busily at work on JR’s latest New York project, using wheatpaste to adhere giant photographs of migrants onto sturdy steel armatures. The looming, 25-foot-tall photographs of two men, five women, a young boy, and a baby are enlargements of images from the archives of Ellis Island. Size aside, they appear rather straightforward.

The artist, sporting his characteristic fedora and dark sunglasses, gestures to the massive photo installation in progress. “Do you know the little trick of these images?” he asks, excited.

It’s there, in plain sight: JR replaced the Ellis Island immigrants’ faces with those of present-day refugees he met at the Zaatari camp, on the Syria-Jordan border.

“The real process of my work is to actually connect people,” JR tells me. “I wish I could bring these people here physically, but they cannot travel—they’re stuck in a camp, they can’t enter Jordan and yet can’t go back to Syria. So I’m bringing their images, and I’m bringing a discussion.”

Titled So Close (2018), and presented by The Armory Show, Artsy, and Jeffrey Deitch, the new photographic mural is the centerpiece of the Manhattan art fair’s Platform section this year. Anyone riding on the West Side Highway this week will catch a glimpse of it, and it’s the first thing fairgoers will see upon entering the The Armory Show at Pier 94—a vision of immigrants in a line, waiting.

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JR says that his mission “is always to raise questions, not bring answers.” The Armory project follows his lauded work at the U.S.-Mexico border last fall, the timely Kikito (2017), which saw a giant photographic sculpture of a Mexican toddler named Kikito playfully peering over the border wall from Tecate, Mexico, into the United States. He’s also been in the news of late for his Oscar-nominated documentary, a collaboration with legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda called Faces Places, in which the pair road-tripped across French countryside to create empowering murals of working men and women. Both are representative of the artist’s ambitious projects that seek to honor everyday people and amplify unheard voices, often to foster moments for community and discourse.

As the jewel of The Armory Show’s Platform section curated by Jen Mergel, titled “The Contingent” this year, the piece is contextualized among other large-scale projects—including new works by Tara Donovan, The Bruce High Quality Foundation, and Amalia Pica—that are meant to offer some resolution to the recurring question: What role can artists play amidst uncertain, politically and socially divisive moments like the present? I put the question to JR.

“I believe strongly, as an artist, we cannot lose utopianism,” he offers. “If we lose that then the world is lost. The artist is the one who can try things, raise questions, and provoke answers.”

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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.

View of SO CLOSE at The Armory Show 2018 presented by Artsy and Jeffrey Deitch. Photo by Silvia Ros for Artsy.

View of SO CLOSE at The Armory Show 2018 presented by Artsy and Jeffrey Deitch. Photo by Silvia Ros for Artsy.

The artist traversed the refugee camp looking for individuals to photograph and explained the project, as well as his suspicion—that no one would see the difference between contemporary refugees and those who were entering the U.S. a century ago. Many were eager to participate. JR photographed the lookalikes in exacting poses and expressions, and matched living people with their predecessors.

He ended up installing the hybrid images—the bodies of Ellis Island immigrants with the faces of contemporary refugees—and no one in charge noticed the difference. The artist’s methods were a secret until a few weeks ago, when JR divulged it during a 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper.

Yet it wasn’t his intention, overall, to be incisive or divisive or disingenuous. Quite the opposite. “I’m not trying to make a big scoop about it, it’s just that you can’t tell the difference,” JR reflects. “It’s people—from different parts of life, eras of time, different countries—that have the same faces and energy, but with different stories.” They’re all looking for a better place to live, he says, and they’re not necessarily traveling by choice.

JR is excited for the project to live on in a new form, moving from Ellis Island to The Armory Show. “It’s a great continuation, because it’s getting closer to the people,” he explains. “People from across the world come to this fair, and will see it, face to face.”

So Close takes on greater weight physically, too. The steel cut-outs of the piece are new for the artist (though he’s done notable work with scaffolding recently, including his pieces of athletes during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro) and his inspiration for the construction comes from an unexpected place: propaganda billboards he saw during a visit to North Korea.

JR, Women are Heroes, Elizabeth Kamanga, Le Havre, France, 2014. Courtesy of JR Studio.

JR, Women are Heroes, Elizabeth Kamanga, Le Havre, France, 2014. Courtesy of JR Studio.

He acknowledges that he ultimately has little control over the resonance of a project once it’s mounted, but on several occasions, he’s seen the power that an image can have once it’s shared with the public.

“I didn’t know that that image would go around the world and back,” he said of Kikito, which unintentionally had perfect timing—it went up just as President Trump announced his reversal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.

After JR posted an image of Kikito on Instagram, people began making pilgrimages to the site, both in Mexico and the U.S. He recounts that people were going to take photos of themselves or to be able to say they’d gone, but eventually they began interacting with people on the opposite side of the wall; Americans and Mexicans would exchange phones, taking photos of one another next to the art. It happened so frequently that JR organized a lunch at one long table that passed through the wall, its surface emblazoned with the eyes of a woman who is a Dreamer, an immigrant protected by DACA.

“A lot of my work is to recreate interactions between people,” JR says, emphasizing that the images are just the beginning of a project’s impact.

He recalls a piece from 2014, which involved wheatpasting the eyes of a woman on a container ship. Months later, he found out that the same container ship had been used to rescue a boat of 250 refugees off the coast of Libya, giving them safe transport to Italy.

“I never know what’s possible,” he says, “how far an image will go.”

Casey Lesser is an Editor at Artsy.

Header image: View of SO CLOSE at The Armory Show 2018 presented by Artsy and Jeffrey Deitch. Photo by Silvia Ros for Artsy.