Archive for the ‘JR’ Tag

Here yesterday, gone today….

One of my favourite artists, JR, was in New York some time ago, and pasted up some images from the ‘Lakota, Dakota Nation’ project that is part of Inside Out, the global, participatory enterprise launched by JR after winning the TED prize last year. I’m a big fan of JR’s work and have recently been writing about it in my academic work, so it’s always a pleasure to see his images on display in a city.

I was staying in SoHo during my recent trip to New York and walked past these two images every day:

Hugely striking, not just for their close-up intimacy, as characterises all of JR’s work, but also, especially in the second of those two pieces, for their placement. For that face to run on its side along the top of the building was a counter-intuitive decision that works really well.

In addition to those two locations, JR’s work was also on the best-known spot in Manhattan: the wall at the corner of East Houston Street and Bowery:

This image works really well in this setting: the black and white photography stands out against the urban background, the shape of the section of face that is featured seems to fit the space of the wall particularly well.

It was lucky that I photographed it when I did, because unbeknownst to me that wall was about to be transformed. Within two days, JR was gone and Faile were putting up a very different image, involving stand-out colouration, images from pop culture, fragments of text, and collaged figures, as has become their signature. The wall at East Houston and Bowery works so well because its size, shape and location next to the plain white wall of a building mean that large-scale portraits such as JR’s work beautifully, but also busy, flattened, pop images like Faile’s also seem to draw energy from the location.

When I went by to see it, Faile were putting the finishing touches to it, and there were many happy passers-by like myself taking photographs, including the legend herself, Martha Cooper.

Talking about street art….

I’m giving a lunchtime talk in my department next week, called ‘Street Art and the Contestation of Public Space’.

Here’s what it will be about:

“Cities are sites of intense cultural and aesthetic production, engaged in the continual development and refinement of their self-image. This occurs by means of a range of aesthetic practices, such as architectural innovation, statuary, control of signage and advertising, and public art, underpinned by a network of planning regulations, local and municipal laws, and public order law.

For its citizens, a city’s processes of cultural production are sometimes unremarkable or even imperceptible; at other times, however, these processes become contested, subject to planning disputes, legal intervention, and shifts in public opinion. This talk focuses upon the contestation arises in connection with street art and graffiti writing.

The talk will focus upon two examples.

The first is the approach to street art taken by the City of Melbourne. Since 2003, local councils within Victoria have been required by the Department of Justice to develop plans for the regulation of graffiti within their municipalities. The City of Melbourne initially developed a strategic approach to graffiti based on the concept of zones of ‘tolerance’ for graffiti and street art, but then elected instead to pursue a policy of zero tolerance combined with a discretionary permit system.

The second example focuses upon the French street artist JR, who uses street art as a means of engagement with the politics of ethnicity, race and religion and as a platform to draw attention to the impact of war or emergency in ‘post-conflict’ cities and countries.”

If you are in Melbourne and are interested in coming along, here’s a link to the departmental homepage, where you can find details of the talk listed under ‘Events and Seminars’. Clicking on that link will open a downloadable pdf of a poster for the talk, which gives information about the venue and the time.

I’ve done a few talks on street art and graffiti over the last few years in Melbourne – Street Alliance, at Federation Square, or the Cultural Development Network’s forum on Permissible Art at the Famous When Dead Gallery. This one will be a more ‘academic’ one, given the setting, of course. Anyway, if you are interested, you are welcome to come along.

More JR

It will be clear from my earlier post (‘The power of vision': JR and the women) that I am fascinated by the work of JR, the French street artist who works with portrait photography to make extremely interesting interventions around race, gender and violence.

I’ve been trying to find online clips from the film that I saw in London, which concerned the women of the favela Morra da Providencia in Rio de Janeiro. No luck so far, but what I have found is a brief excerpt from another part of the 28 Millimetres: Women project, described as a ‘trailer’ and called ‘Women Are Heroes’. JR travelled to a range of African countries which could variously be described as at best ‘post-conflict’ and at worst ‘at war’: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Kenya among others. This little film shows many of the same cinematic devices used in the one I saw in London – the jittery camera work (used to a lesser degree here), the hypnotic, repetitive music, the telling of stories of violence and loss. It has its differences too: in this film, we hear JR himself narrating his intentions for the project, and it features a slightly more conventional, documentary-style telling of one woman’s story.

There are other films on YouTube  showing different aspects of JR’s work (for example, in the housing projects on the outskirts of Paris), all of which are well worth watching too. But this one has an intensity that comes very close to the experience I had, sitting in the Lazarides gallery in London, with women’s faces pasted all over its ceiling, floor and walls, watching the women of Morro da Providencia on screen. If you do watch the little film I’ve included here, I should also give a bit of a warning: some of this film is very distressing.

Fade to grey

Recently I wrote about buffing, the different ways in which councils, governments and property owners seek to erase any graffiti or street art that has been added to a wall or surface.

For many works of street art, the buff represents their fate, sometimes far sooner than the artist would like. One day the image is there, next day it’s gone – painted over, scraped off.

But sometimes an image evades the buff and remains in place for a long, long time. Its longevity might derive from its being tucked away in a hard-to-notice spot, so that years go by and the work has actually only been seen by a few people. Or it might have been placed somewhere that’s hard to reach – hard for the artist who put it there, but also hard for any cleaning crew, which means that a work can stay up for years. And sometimes, even when a work is prominently visible, easy to access, and illegally located, it somehow escapes the buff, and just slowly and gradually disappears, fading back into the stone.

Within street art culture, there seems to be a lot of admiration, and often rightly so, for newly painted work: images that look glossy and shiny, which haven’t been weathered or degraded in any way (by the addition of tags or the application of posters on top, for example). And I’ve heard people say that work which is fading ‘looks old’, ‘tired’ and so on, and to a certain extent that’s true.

But some artists like to see the effects of these external forces and circumstances on their artworks. Miso, for example, is interested in the peeling and fraying that can arise when a pasted-up image experiences the effects of hot sun, rain, wind. And JR’s pasted-up photographic posters register the impact of the environment pretty fast – his work on the façade of the Tate Modern was repaired by the gallery after only a matter of weeks in place, thanks to a damp British summer. For these artists, though, the possibility of deterioration isn’t a problem, but is rather an integral part of their artistic practice – it’s something they actively invite.

Beyond this, though, I think it’s also worth looking at fading artworks, even when that gradual disappearance and deterioration isn’t part of the artist’s stated intentions. It takes quite a time for a painted work on stone to fade – usually months or even years, which means these greying images have a lifespan that’s quite remarkable given the frequency of buffing and going-over by other artists.

Here’s a fading Banksy. To see the remains of it, it’s best to click on the image to make it bigger. Look at the top step, where there are some words still faintly visible:
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It reads ‘designated picnic area’ and is stencilled on the steps of an office building in a busy road in Shoreditch in London. It’s scarcely legible now, almost vanished back into the steps, its humour and incongruity about to depart the scene.

And take a look at this one:

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It looks like a red smudge on the pavement, but it’s the remains of another Banksy. If you look more closely at the wall next to the smudge, you can see the traces of the two rats stencilled on the walls:

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These rats were kitted out as waiters in a fancy restaurant, with the red smudge actually a red carpet. The rats have faded more than the red carpet, and you need to know what was there in order to make sense of what remains. I’m indebted in this respect to Martin Bull’s useful little book, Banksy Locations and Tours (details available from his website), which has a photograph of the work before it started to fade.

So how should we make sense of the fading artwork? Do we dismiss it as occupying some transitional zone between ‘freshness’ and oblivion? Do we paint over it so that new work can take its place? Does its faded nature mean that it is no longer worth noticing or thinking about?

In some ways, I think it’s the very ‘in between-ness’ of the fading image that makes it interesting. Not quite here and not quite gone, maybe having an almost historical value as a record of what was done in the past, but gradually relinquishing any claim on our attention amidst the visual hubbub of the contemporary city. So next time you walk through the streets, perhaps it’s worth paying homage to these fading images, these survivors who have, through chance or circumstance, escaped both the buff and the privileging of the new work of art.

‘The power of vision': JR and the women

JR is a French photographer who used to paste up in the street the poster-sized printouts he had made of his photographs. Since he did this without the permission of the property owner on whose building he would stick the artwork, his art was, of course, illegal. JR has become one of the most internationally celebrated ‘street’ artists (have a look at his website to get a sense of his fantastic work). He is one of the six artists who were selected to exhibit their work on the front of the Tate Modern in London earlier this year (see the blog entry in October, ‘Street art and the museum’).

He has built this huge international reputation around a simple but clever artistic device. He makes portrait photos: head-and-shoulders shots, waist-upwards shots, extreme close-ups of faces or of facial features such as eyes. These photographs are then blown up. It’s through this simple device that JR has become famous – the photograph replicated and expanded in size, pasted up around the streets. These portraits were also made within the parameters of a political point of view. JR’s artworks draw the spectator’s attention to issues of race, ethnicity and poverty, all of which are crucial issues in a city such as Paris where JR began pasting up his work.

Over the years, it seems that JR’s images have become larger. While the scale of his artwork on the Tate was obviously determined by the size of the building, there were additional JR images around London during the northern summer that confirmed his ability to position a very large work in a really fascinating way. Have a look at this image:

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What you can see is an image that is several storeys tall, situated on a building in Old Street in Shoreditch. The massive buildings next to it become simply part of the artwork’s frame. There’s also something of the trompe l’oeuil about the image: it’s black and white, it’s clearly not real, its perspective is all wrong for it to work as a straightforward in situ illusion, but there is something about the image – deriving from its nature as a photograph – which means that the spectator looks into it as well as at it. It is as though two separate worlds have been made to rub up against each other.

While in London in October, I saw JR’s show called 28 Millimetres: Women (it’s just a small part of his massive 28 Millimetres project much of which focuses on post-conflict societies in Africa, more details on JR’s website, and on this aspect of the project see this link).

JR took photographs of some of the inhabitants of Morro da Providencia, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. As is his usual practice, he blew up the photographs and turned them into massive posters which he pasted onto the sides of walls and buildings in the favela. He also used some of these to make some more conventional ‘fine’ artworks, and others were blown up to the enormous sized images which covered some buildings in the street outside. In addition, he made a film in the favela, which features the artworks he made for the buildings but which is also very much an artwork in its own right.

The show took place in the two Lazarides galleries (one in Greek Street, and the other on Charing Cross Road, both in Soho), and on Manette Street, a small street which runs between the two galleries (here’s a link to the Lazarides website and its information about the show). The Greek Street gallery contained the  works which most conformed to the genre of the ‘fine’ artwork – that is, individual works, hung on the gallery walls.

These works were mainly photographs, sometimes small, sometimes blown up to considerable size (though nothing that could rival the building-sized images outside). Some work were pasted onto wooden panels, or sheets of rough wood, so that the face or figure in the image enters into a kind of relationship with the texture of the wooden surface, which in some works is fairly smooth but in others is very rough-hewn. The paper covering the wood is often scratched, as if it has been scored with a knife or sharp nails, and thus although the wooden backing and framing of the images seems to give them a sense of place, even though they have been detached from their original home, the images also seem to register an injury…

In Manette Street, some of JR’s massive artworks had been pasted onto the buildings:

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In the Charing Cross Road gallery, the walls and ceiling of the exhibition space were covered with printed ‘contact sheets’ of JR’s portrait subjects, replicated over and over in a manner that mimicked the continuous run of celluloid film, as you can see in this photograph:
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And on a screen at the rear of the Charing Cross Road gallery, showing on a continuous loop was a short film – for me, the most extraordinary work within this incredible, multi-layered show.

As I’ve mentioned, the film focuses on Morro da Providencia, a favela built on a steep hillside in Rio de Janeiro. As with the multiple levels in the exhibition as a whole, the film combines several elements: music (which is electronic, both urgent and plaintive), some archival news sources, the inclusion of voices speaking over the images (since they speak in Portuguese, the film is sub-titled in English), and a range of cinematographic techniques, including hand-held camera and time-lapse film. (I can’t say exactly how long it lasts – I watched this film several times over, on different days, and, although I tried to time its duration, each time I watched it I became so caught up in its narrative and its affect that I forgot to check my watch at its conclusion.)

The opening shows a news anchor relating a story about the shooting of some of the favela’s inhabitants, after the military opened fire on a public square. And this straightaway establishes the context for the film: the impact of militarised violence and torture inflicted upon a community. After this, the film shows, through time-lapse film, the installation of JR’s images throughout the favela, as they are pasted up on walls and outside houses. For this sequence, the camera is positioned quite a distance away and well below the favela, so that its entire upward sprawl can be seen, with the eyes, mouths, foreheads and faces of JR’s subjects now covering many of the vertical surfaces (there’s a still showing this on the Lazarides website).

But the film’s purpose is not (or not only) to record the installation of these works. JR’s objective is always portraiture, but here he produces a portrait which is multi-faceted enough to do justice both to the many individuals who face the video camera for JR and to the identity and space of the favela itself as a community dealing with the aftermath of police violence.

After the opening, the film is mainly composed of a series of sequences in which the camera races down alley ways and eventually halts in front of an individual – sometimes a woman, often a child, occasionally a man – or in which the camera follows someone through the interconnected rooms of their home, often ending up with that individual (child, woman or man) standing on the flat roof of their home with the favela rising and falling around them.

But although I say the camera ‘halts, or someone ‘ends up’, these words aren’t an accurate description of what the camera is doing, because they imply that some kind of even momentary stasis is reached. Instead, the camera is in constant motion, its film speeded up so that it fairly tears through the streets and alleys. Even when it is apparently at rest and in contemplation of an individual face, it is still recording at an accelerated speed, so that every single blink, glance or expression registers as a twitchy jitter in the subject’s face. In this way, what could have been a languid, leisurely excursus through the favela is rendered urgent, compelling (and fitting the film’s attempt to show how trauma registers within the everyday life of the community and its inhabitants).

And while the camera is building these jittery portraits of place and face, various voices speak (with sub-titled translations). At one point, a woman relates the experience of having to go to the garbage tip to search for pieces of her son’s body, after he had been taken away by soldiers and then killed. Her voice says: ‘it hurts your soul’. Another says: ‘I only give this interview because you are not from here and will take it far away, otherwise I wouldn’t, for I am afraid of the violence’. One boy narrates his witnessing the shooting of three children when the police started firing upon a demonstration in the public square. And another woman speaks of how Providencia had been neglected by artists, and how important JR’s intervention is for the community. She calls it ‘the power of vision’.

Many of the faces which constitute as the film’s jittery portraits are solemn, sombre or impassive. Occasionally a smiling face is shown – a young woman breastfeeding her baby, a little girl laughing. Many of the voices speak of how much they love Providencia, of how grateful they feel to have lived there. Such love, such gratitude, in the context of lives lived amid violence and loss, is amazing. The film completely succeeds in conveying the tension between a sense of the beautiful (the favela as a space of community and happiness) and the experience of violence (the faces whose camera-accelerated jitters seem to bespeak the pain they have undoubtedly suffered, and the favela as a site of loss).

And as such it is a text profoundly about trauma, about the inability to resolve such a contradiction. It is about witnessing violence, and about making art visible. It is about seeing the effects of violence, and about creating an artwork whose faces and eyes look outwards from the hillside towards the city whose police force has inflicted such harm. Through art, the houses are literally made to look, as walls and windows become eyes, faces, bodies. The film ends as night falls over Rio de Janeiro, and these faces, bodies and eyes fade into black, with the camera juddering the distant lights of Rio into a neon blur. Freeze frame, and then black. The film ends, but there is no ‘end’ to what we have seen.

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