Opening this summer at London’s Saatchi Gallery, JR: Chronicles is a new exhibition encompassing over 15 years of JR’s brand of art as activism.
After finding a camera on the Paris metro in 2001, the French artist has gone on to gain international recognition, an Oscar nomination and a spot on Time’s 100 most influential people. His identity has remained loosely concealed by a hat and sunglasses throughout this time, due to the legal and safety risks associated with his public installations around the world.
The exhibition begins with the artist’s early experiments with photography and wheat pasting in public settings – still a core element of his practice today – while growing up in Paris in the early 2000s. This includes one of his earliest projects, Expo 2 Rue, where he documented graffiti artists and presented the images in the streets.
Expo 2 Rue was followed in 2004 by Portrait of a Generation in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Ladj Ly. The project comprised portraits of young people from Les Bosquets, a housing project in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, which were again expanded to huge scale and pasted in the streets. Following the 2005 Paris riots, JR returned to create new portraits that caricaturised stereotypes and depictions of the locals perpetuated by politicians and the media.
JR: Chronicles has been organised and curated by the Brooklyn Museum, which previously hosted the exhibition. The London presentation will include more recent works created in the time since, including two projects from 2019: The Secret of the Great Pyramid, which marked the Louvre Pyramid’s 30th anniversary, and Tehachapi, which involved photographing and working with maximum security prisoners in California.
The exhibition will include other projects celebrating overlooked members of society, such as Women Are Heroes and Wrinkles of the City. Also on display will be Faces Places, JR’s 2017 film co-directed with the late filmmaker Agnès Varda, which follows their road trip around France.
Whether pasting prisoners’ portraits in the Tehachapi prison yard or his projects at the borders between Palestine and Israel or the USA and Mexico, the scale involved in many of JR’s works means that the full message and impact is best seen from afar, rather than in the location itself.
However, there is an element of participation and exchange involved in his practice: for example, people are often given a copy of their portraits, as with his global photography project Inside Out, which has been running for ten years.
Executing his work in public spaces also means that it can be altered, manipulated or interpreted by anyone. “That’s what I love: the fact that it’s in the street and it belongs to the people, truly, and the interpretation of it depends on the context and the frame of reference, where people have been growing up and what it means there,” JR said in a recent talk about his new book How Old Am I. “A pasting in one place is art and in another means crime.
“I’m always really interested by what people think and how they interpret [my work],” he added. “I’m interested by their own narrative, because it’s more interesting than mine. It helps me, almost like a [sociologist], to understand how people think in the country, and in this way to really understand what’s the mentality, what’s the state of mind in all the places I’ve travelled to, and not just stay on the surface.”