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Artist JR on Immigrants and How Art Can Change the World

The star street artist discusses his new art film, 'Ellis,' which stars Robert De Niro. NBD.

by Heidi Harrington-Johnson
Nov 17 2015, 8:15pm

All images courtesy the artist

Between 1892 and 1954, over 12 million immigrants entered the United States via the shores of Ellis Island, a small section of partly reclaimed land visible from Manhattan’s southernmost tip, just north of the Statue of Liberty. The island served as a processing plant, a place to vet those who had left their homes in search of a better life, or were fleeing the instability, and turbulent conditions in Europe around the time of the World Wars. The center ceased operation in 1954 but last year it became the subject of multimedia artist JR’s short film, Ellis (2015), starring Robert De Niro and written by Eric Roth.

The film's script details a young immigrant's experience of expatriation voiced by De Niro as his solitary figure wanders the desolate, snow-covered buildings on Ellis Island in search of the idea of home. It isn’t an uncommon journey. More than one-third of Americans can trace their lineage to someone who walked between the immigration center's pine walls, and for the French-born, New York-based JR, it’s a personal one. “I myself am a second generation immigrant and when I tell the story of Ellis Island, I tell the story of my family,” he tells The Creators Project. “I tell the story of all those who left their home.” 

His camera captures the faces of those less fortunate. When taking a photograph, a photographer is necessarily involved in a series of decisions about what to capture and how, and whatever is eventually recorded is done so at the expense of something else. The camera's rectangular frame plays an important part in this process, structuring perspective, and shaping and focusing what is included within the border or boundary and what is left out. Portraits of undocumented American immigrants willing to reveal their identity in the name of immigration reform line the floors under De Niro’s feet in some scenes, and hint at the projects’ uncanny timeliness in terms of the growing humanitarian crisis and mass migration occurring across Europe, North African, and the Middle East. 

Portraiture and the human face are recurring motifs in JR’s work, as he finds the best way to connect and engage with people is through their image. He transforms self-consciousness—“something we all have within ourselves”—into art that serves a bigger purpose for society.

In choosing his subject and shooting location, he consults the international news media and travels extensively to discover the stories he wants to capture firsthand. It seems simple; walking around with local people to discover their community and watching and listening to decide who will make a good subject, whilst looking for wall-space to adorn his iconic pastings. But trust and a willingness to participate are key components. For JR, the street is the best gallery in the world. “I feel that art is an incredible enabler to connect people to raise questions and to show another angle on society,” he says. “And what is better to open a completely free discussion than art in the street, between people of a community?”

Perhaps one of the reasons behind JR’s success is his perpetual attempt to reframe and challenge established boundaries of what constitutes art and whom it should be made for. Rather than being relegated to a gallery wall or concert hall, JR’s work is innately anti-establishment. He doesn’t align himself with brands or advertising, instead funding his projects from the sale of his work and he remains semi-anonymous  because some of his what he does is illegal.

Making Of "Les Bosquets" The Story of Ladj Ly by JR, Film by Vincent Lorca from SOCIAL ANIMALS on Vimeo.

In his short film Les Bosquets, the classically trained movements of New York City Ballet dancer Lauren Lovette and Memphis jookin' dancer Lil Buck are juxtaposed against Parisian projects. The large-scale black-and-white pastings he is famously known for are made from paper stuck with glue onto New York City streets or train carriages traveling through Kenyan slums. They are impermanent and amenable only to the elements, and the unsuspecting eyes encountering them during the daily commute. We are the object of his gaze but also his subject, and as such we become part of his process. We are the artform itself.

The notion of perception and the human eye also appear frequently along with JR’s catchphrase, “Can Art Change the World?" He says that creating art to provoke an opinion is important; to get people thinking differently about others and their way of life rather than focusing on fear and consumerism. “The key for changing the world is the perception we have on the world and I strongly believe that by slowly changing the perspective we have on each other that we do slowly change the world,” he says.

It’s a tall order, but he isn’t attempting it alone, regularly collaborating with artists working across a number of mediums and genres while encouraging his audience to get involved. Sign up on his website, for example, and he’ll send you a USB stick so that you can set-up your own screening of Ellis. There is an irony to the endeavor; watching the plight of those less fortunate searching for a base from the comfort of your own. More importantly, however, is the reminder that not all those who made the decision to leave home were granted refuge on Ellis Island, and that some died there or on the way. Pertinent, too, is that sometimes the most salient thing is simply to have a safe place to call home. 

ELLIS - trailer from SOCIAL ANIMALS on Vimeo.

To learn more about JR, click here

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Artist JR Photographed A Troupe Of Ballet Dancers 180 Feet Above Paris

JR Teams Up With New York City Ballet, Woodkid, And Lil Buck For Theatrical Directorial