Can Banksy be outdone by another street artist? The answer is yes, at least with regard to magnitude. In early February, JR, a semi-anonymous Parisian street-artist, has unveiled a massive new mural in Williamsburg’s Domino Park.
At 53 feet high, The Chronicles of New York City depicts a wide tableau of over 1000 different New Yorkers of every shape, color, and size. Dotted throughout the mural’s background are notable New York City landmarks: the Freedom Tower, the Empire State Building, and the Williamsburg Bridge.
The awe-inspiring work, pasted onto 16 blue shipping containers stacked on top of each other, is also a trompe l’oeil of an unusual sort—not only it faithfully represents the Bridge within, it continues to confuse the viewer by connecting the verisimilitude with the real Williamsburg Bridge that serves as the mural’s backdrop.
‘The Chronicles of New York City’ is the centerpiece of JR: Chronicles, the artist’s exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum— the largest one in North America to date. It showcases his murals, photographs, videos, films, and archival materials from throughout his career.
The project began in the summer of 2018 when JR and his team took their mobile studio throughout all five boroughs of New York and photographed random participants they found on the street. Each subject was shot individually behind a green screen according to how they preferred to be staged and afterward spliced into the larger piece, giving a sense of both stark individualism in its subjects, and one of community to the overall work.
The piece includes an audio component—viewers can download the free JR: Murals app to hear the story of each subject displayed in the work.
It is not the first time that JR has tied the personal and the public to create works of participatory art throughout New York City. In 2014, he created an installation at Ellis Island that used archival images to bring the faces of immigrants back to life on a grand scale. In 2018, the Parisian photographer collaborated with TIME Magazine to create a piece on gun control—first as a magazine cover, then, recreated as a mural, it was installed on Houston Bowery Art Wall.
The magnitude is not the only thing that sets JR apart. While he is renowned for creating works that carry strong political messages, his focus seems to be on collaborating with the communities he displays to give visibility to the human faces behind the issues that his pieces tackle.
Having started as a tagger in Paris, the “guerrilla photographer” has been mounting his monumentally scaled monochrome photographs in troubled locations. JR’s 28 Millimètres project, which began in Parisian banlieues, took him to the Middle East, where, on a wall running through the length of Israeli-Palestinian border, he mounted a giant triptych depicting a rabbi, an imam, and a priest, each captured with a comical, good-hearted expression. It showed that in our humanity, there is more that unites us than what divides.
Since then, the activist artist’s appeared in impoverished and crime-ridden favelas of Rio de Janeiro and in slums of Kibera, Kenia, where he wrapped 21,500 square feet of rooftops with enlarged photographs of Kibera’s female residents. His work has been exhibited and created all around the world, including Berlin, Havana, and Iran, it was sold at Sotheby’s and plastered on the Tate Modern’s wall. JR has become a highly influential figure in the street art scene; in 2011 he won the TED Prize and, in 2017, an Oscar nomination for a film he co-directed. His semi-anonymous status nonetheless has remained unchanged, highlighting the apparent paradox of JR’s artistic choice that brings to focus individual faces of those who exist as an anonymous mass behind political and social issues.
‘The Chronicle of America’ is open to the public at Domino Park at 300 Kent Avenue in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Museum’s JR: Chronicles exhibit runs until May 3rd.