Aspen Times Weekly: JR Was Here

by Andrew Travers
Charles "Lil Buck" Riley performed in Anderson Park during Aspen Ideas Festival. The artist JR made a short film out of the impromptu dance performance.
Lynn Goldsmith/The Aspen Times |

Hundreds of photos are pasted across gondola plaza. More are plastered on plywood structures at Aspen Meadows. One short film has been made, another screened along with a once-in-a-lifetime live dance performance.

All evidence that JR was here.

The semi-anonymous French artist and filmmaker made his mark on Aspen in late June and early July as an artist-in-residence at the Aspen Institute. He rolled into town on June 26 with his Inside Out Project, a world-wide participatory art happening headquartered in a photo booth truck that’s outfitted to look like a massive camera.

Locals and out-of-towners here for the Aspen Ideas Festival lined up at the truck, parked between Paepcke Auditorium and the Benedict Music Tent, to have their portraits taken. Moments after a photo was snapped in the truck, a large-format paper print unfurled out of the side of the vehicle.

“The truck is the most magical thing,” JR said in an Ideas Fest talk at Paepcke.

Billed as “a global art project transforming messages of personal identity into works of art,” Inside Out has shot about 200,000 people in 112 countries. The photo booth truck has traveled Nepal, Mexico, Palestine and Israel, it’s focused on communities like the Lakota tribe in North Dakota, the LGBT community in Russia and soldiers in Armenia.

The artist, whose given name is unknown but whose age is believe to be 30, launched the Inside Out Project in 2011 after he won the TED Prize, an honor that comes with “one wish to change the world” and cash to attempt to make it come true. He saw the project as a way to enable people in communities across the world to tell their own story through public art. Each Inside Out “action,” as JR calls them, is archived and documented online.

“I’ve tried taking photos in places all over the world and I realized one thing – I went to Sudan, I went to Switzerland, I went to Aspen, the south of France, everywhere – everywhere people are looking for dignity,” he said. “That’s what we all have in common.”

At gondola plaza, JR went to work with a team of six, using glue and a sweeper broom to plaster more than 100 of the images from the mobile photo booth between the Silver Queen Gondola and the Residences at the Little Nell, forming a massive group portrait at the base of Aspen Mountain (the artist took a dirt bike ride up the hill shortly before his presentation at the festival, crashing in a patch of snow near the mountaintop).

Around Anderson Park, amid sagebrush and tall grass, he pasted blown-up photos of eyes on plywood. They looked on as the Ideas Festival crowds passed through. He positioned a pair of eyes, also, in the pond at the park’s upvalley end. There, he enlisted dancer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley to make a short film.

Buck entered the water on Sunday, June 28 and performed a slow solo aquatic ballet of contortion and gravity defiance, as JR – in his signature sunglasses and trilby hat – filmed from a bridge. JR screened the resulting one-minute film, backed by an operatic score, at the festival.

JR came into the Aspen Institute fold last year, when he collaborated with the New York City Ballet and Buck on an original piece, “Les Bosquets.” A 20-minute filmed version of which also screened at Ideas Fest.

Aspen Institute arts program director Damien Woetzel, the ballet company’s former principal dancer, invited JR to Aspen for a residency during the course of the dance collaboration.

“When I spoke to JR about coming here, he said, ‘Well, we have to do something! We can’t just talk about stuff we already did,’” recalled Woetzel. “We talked about what had already been done. We built on the [Inside Out] Project. We built on ‘Les Bosquets.’ … Then it just came together the other night.”

Founded in 2006, the Institute’s Harman-Eisner Artist in Residence program has hosted luminaries like actress Alfre Woodard, director Julie Taymor, author Tobias Wolff and – last year – Lil Buck. The post lasts a year, and brings the artist to Ideas Fest along with Institute events in New York, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in an effort to bring an artist’s perspective to the Institute’s policy work and public programs, and (vice versa).

* * *

JR had been writing graffiti since his teen years and fell into photography after finding a camera in a Paris subway station.

That camera fueled his first major art project, “Portraits of a Generation,” in 2004, in which he pasted massive portraits of local young people on the housing projects in Cité des Bosquets, a neighborhood in the Parisian suburbs. When massive riots broke out in the area the following year during demonstrations over youth unemployment, police harassment and economic disparity, his images in the background were the subject of worldwide media coverage. JR, improbably, became a star of the contemporary art world.

As the media portrayed his friends and neighbors as dehumanized thugs during the riots – the largest there since the French Revolution – he responded with more portraits and humongous pastings, including the subject’s full name and address when he plastered them on buildings as an invitation for police and media members to come meet them face-to-face.

“They were telling me they felt observed, they felt like animals in a cage. … I said, ‘Let me take a photo,’” he recalled.

The police didn’t bother stopping JR from doing his illegal pastings.

“They saw we were covering up graffiti that said, like, ‘Fuck the police,’ so they were happy with us,” he said.

His new film, “Les Bosquets,” mixes video footage JR has shot in the area over the last decade with a street ballet version of the New York City Ballet composition. He filmed it in his neighborhood with New York City Ballet dancers and Buck portraying police, media and protesters during the riots. It ends with the cast standing in a row, their leotards together forming a portrait of two eyes.

The film, at the Ideas Fest screening, concluded with an unannounced performance from Buck. As it ended, he entered the auditorium holding a scroll in his arms and stalking toward the stage. A projection of a JR portrait of one of Buck’s eyes filled the Paepcke screen. He unfurled another portrait of his eye and held it in front of him as he danced to a previously unheard, slowed down, aching recording of Pharell Williams’ “Happy” over an original Hans Zimmer score. As the song ended, Buck crumpled the portrait.

When Buck hit the stage, JR materialized beside this reporter at the back of the auditorium. He stood on a chair, shooting the action with a camera and a smartphone – at times, both simultaneously – his shades still on in the dark of the theater.

Like his photos and public art actions, he’s uninterested in imposing meaning on the viewer of the film.

“I love to think of this piece as just a poem,” he said. “Depending on where you are and who you are, you’re going to read it differently.”

The meaning of his large format photos of people, normally pasted conspicuously in public, often depends on the context and the viewer’s perspective. But it also often depends on the subjects themselves. Taking part in JR’s Inside Out Project, a person or a community as a whole may make a political statement or may simply take home a souvenir from the renowned artist. Either way is all right by JR.

“Everybody wants to put their photo out there,” he said. “What’s changing, depending on where they’re from, is the meaning behind it. For some people it’s just a selfie, and it’s ego, and that’s fine. For some people it’s about fighting for democracy in their country.”

As his massive black-and-white portraits fill a city, whether they’re of the dispossessed in Brazil and France or of the non-celebrity faces of Aspen, Colorado, these photos argue that the people – not the buildings – are what make a place and give it an identity.

Last year, on Ellis Island, he used a similar approach to raise ghosts. On the abandoned half of the island, in unrestored 19th century immigration buildings that are slowly going back into the earth, JR pasted archival images of the people who worked and passed through there. His work will remain there, seen only by the animals taking their habitat back and by people who take hard-hat tours with the U.S. National Parks Service, until the buildings crumble.

Wandering the abandoned facility, he said he felt the presence of those who came through places like the Ellis Island hospital hoping for a better life in the U.S.

“I would look at the cityscape and think about how these people would sit in this room for 40 days not knowing if they would make it to the other side,” he said of the immigration hospital.

In conjunction with the Ellis Island work, he brought the Inside Out Project to New York and elsewhere in the U.S., capturing images of today’s immigrants.

“They used it to say ‘We are here,’” he said. “You can’t tell who are illegal aliens and who are not from the photos.”

* * *

JR’s work isn’t made to be bought or sold. It’s meant to appear and be perceived, unexpectedly, in public. (Woetzel described JR as owning “the world’s largest art gallery.”)

Due to his free and public approach, when the New York Times Magazine approached JR about a cover story earlier this year, he demurred.

“The nature of my work is that it’s right there in the street, there is no copyright,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what we can do.’”

But when an editor mentioned an issue with the theme “Walking New York,” his interest was piqued.

Taking the Inside Out Project a step further for the Times, he photographed immigrants in New York – his subjects holding his portraits of them, hiding themselves behind the print-outs. He also wanted to paste a photo on the streets so large that people would miss it. So in front of the Flatiron Building, he pasted a photo of a man that covered the entire plaza. JR worked from 2 a.m. to sunrise to complete it. In the morning, as the daily metropolitan throng descended on Manhattan’s streets, people walked over it, not noticing the artwork beneath their feet.

“They were there, walking on his face, walking on his arms, photographing the Flatiron,” he said with a mischievous laugh.

A photo of the piece, taken by JR from an overhead helicopter, literally drew oohs and ahs from the Ideas Fest crowd when JR shared it.

Such projects are risky, and not only because they’re most often illegal. Successfully completing his guerilla art pastings is never assured. Often, he’ll fly to a location for an art project – to Rio de Janeiro, to Medellin, Colombia, to Aspen – with an idea in his mind and a will to get it done, but without infrastructure or approvals on the ground to do the work.

“That’s when it feels right – when there’s a big chance of failure, that’s when I know it’s right,” he said. “As an artist you have the right to fail. I live in that zone of now knowing if it’s going to happen.”

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