Can Art Change The World?

Street art can be witty and it is often political, but rarely does it engage as forcefully as the work of the mysterious Frenchman known as JR. It is not just the vast scale on which the TED Prize-winner operates, sometimes encompassing whole buildings or even favelas, but the way the eyes of his subjects gaze out to grab your own.

The New York-based artist’s interest in changing social dynamics is the subject of a new book, JR: Can Art Change The World?

The photographer’s work would certainly suggest the answer is ‘yes’. He has become known for disseminating mammoth portraits of the people many people prefer to ignore, whether that’s residents of Parisian banlieues or immigrants searching for better lives.

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Two recent projects show the scale of his ambition. Last year, JR gained access to the abandoned hospital at Ellis Island, New York, until 1954 a processing centre for prospective immigrants to the United States. There, he has pasted life-size versions of archived images of those that passed through or were sent back due to illness, hinting at untold stories of loss and hardship.

“Around 12 million immigrants passed through the hospital," he explains by email. "Many of them either died there or were sent back to where they came. It is crazy to think that that the Statue of Liberty was so near.” It took JR three years to gain access to the derelict building, “but the project has allowed the archival images to live again as life-size pastings.”

Their traumas are currently brought further life at London’s Lazarides Rathbone gallery, which is showing work partly based on the Unframed Ellis Island project. On its top floor, a film shows Robert De Niro stalking the hospital’s corridors and wards, himself playing a “ghost of those that didn’t make it”, a stellar contribution that fails to overshadow JR’s own interventions, yet shows how far he has come.

Another reminder comes via Les Bosquets, the artist’s surreal collaboration with Opera de Paris and New York City Ballet dancers, named after the community on the outskirts of Paris where he first worked. This juxtaposes the performers in urban or industrial environments, some in poses choreographed for a work of the same title about the experience of a friend during the 2005 French riots.

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Some of his early pieces included portraits of young people from those same Paris suburbs. "My work is about giving a voice to people that we fail to see or sometimes even avoid seeing,” JR says. "When the riots broke out, kids I knew were being portrayed by the media like animals. They filmed with long lenses from a distance and I wanted to question that.”

With his tiny 28mm camera, JR shot those youths in close-up acting as caricatures of themselves, before pasting his images on a massive scale, first in Les Bosquets, then in the centre of Paris, adding their names, ages and building numbers. “Because from Paris, it looked like they were an army that was about to invade.” So what about the question posed in the title of the book on JR’s work?

All he says is “Art is not supposed to change the world, but if you are able to change people’s perception, you can hope to change the world.”

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JR: Can Art Change the World? With graphic novel by Joseph Remnant and an essay by Nato Thompson, £39.95 / $59.95 US / €49.95 / $69.95 CAN / $75 AUS Phaidon 2015, www.phaidon.com/jrbook

JR: Crossing is at Lazarides Rathbone, 11 Rathbone Place, London W1T, until November 12.