JR (French, born 1983). Inside Out, Times Square, New York City, 2013. Installation image. Wheat-pasted posters on buildings. © JR-ART.NET

We are the museum - a preview of ‘JR: Chronicles’ at  Groninger Museum

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021
Fluidity

Approaching the Groninger Museum, Maia Paduraru is faced with large black-and-white portraits of many people passing by whose face is being photographed, printed and pasted on its outside walls. Its the introduction to JR Chronicles, the mysterious artist who is known for the huge photographs he flyposts all around the world (and on Instagram). Coordinator Geertje Smeding walks Maia through the show.

When approaching the Groninger Museum, large and strangely familiar faces invite me to look at them. The pictures glued on the walls of the building have been printed on what seems to be thin, newspaper-like paper, bearing a sense of cheap reproduction. These black and white portraits pop out of the toyish post-modernistic design of the building of the Groninger Museum. It makes you wonder: were the walls of museum perhaps vandalized?

A bustling crowd waits for their picture to be taken in the van that stands right in front of the museum. It is a sort of photo booth on wheels, with a big printer inside. Little people suspect that they are becoming part of an artwork called Inside Out: a project that started off a week ago, taking photographs of over 200 of Groningen’s residents in different neighborhoods and gluing the portraits on buildings in the people’s home district.

Inside Out started off a week ago, taking photographs of over 200 of Groningen’s residents in different neighborhoods and gluing the portraits on buildings in the people’s home district

JR at the Groninger Museum, 'Inside Out' project, photo: Maia Paduraru

JR at the Groninger Museum, 'Inside Out' project, photo: Maia Paduraru

JR at the Groninger Museum, 'Inside Out' project, photo: Maia Paduraru

Inside the Groninger Museum, a group of workers are busy with the last preparations for an exhibition that opens soon and that has everything to do with the photo van outside: JR: Chronicles.

I walk around as they are installing the lights, polishing the glass, and pasting the last artworks. The big hallway towards the exhibition space is fully covered with a photograph, which shows many figures in a carefully arranged composition, reminiscent of a mural painting of Diego Rivera or Rafael’s School of Athens. The photograph encapsulates the diversity of people in New York City, ranging from drag queens and dog owners to swimmers.

JR Chronicles, Groninger Museum, 2021, foto Heinz Aebi

Walking through the different rooms of the exhibition I encounter framed photos, a Samsung camera, a series of TV screens with videos playing and a metal crate with rolled up posters inside it. JR: Chronicles unfolds as a multimedia exhibition with videos, pictures, installations and objects that tell stories of humans all over the world. Often, JR chooses to photograph those people that are usually portrayed in connection to poverty, crime or violence only: women from the favela’s in Rio de Janeiro for example, or people from the Kibera slum in Kenya. The exhibition showcases both JR's early work as a graffiti artist on the streets of Paris and his current worldwide projects such as Inside Out and Women are Heroes. The show was created by the Brooklyn Museum in New York and now travels around the world.

The exhibition showcases both JR's early work as a graffiti artist on the streets of Paris and his current worldwide projects

JR at Groninger Museum, the hallway towards the exhibition, photo: Maia Paduraru

JR Chronicles, Groninger Museum, 2021, foto Heinz Aebi

JR Chronicles, Groninger Museum, 2021, foto Heinz Aebi

'JR: Chronicles' at Groninger Museum, photo: Heinz Aebi

You may not recognize the name of the artist at first, but his work might still be familiar to you. Looking at his black and white portraits on dotted backgrounds, you get a sense of having seen them before, on the street or on social media. His work tries to shed light on the neglected and forgotten people of our society.

In the creative process, JR happily takes a step back. It's often the people themselves that are holding the camera; JR 'merely' plays the role of a mediator between these people’s stories and the world. You will not be able to find much information about who is JR as a person, as he systematically hides his identity behind his iconic hat and sunglasses. In an interview with Groninger Museum, JR explains: “I haven't been involved with media for 8 to 9 years. I already did as little as possible media coverage, to make sure that I wasn't too famous, and that people can discover my work for themselves instead of letting the whole world know what I do.”

It's often the people themselves that are holding the camera; JR 'merely' plays the role of a mediator between these people’s stories and the world

'JR: Chronicles' at Groninger Museum, photo: Heinz Aebi

JR (French, born 1983). 28 Millimètres, Women Are Heroes, Action dans la Favela Morro da Providência, Favela de Jour, Rio de Janeiro, 2008. Installation image. Wheat-pasted posters on buildings. © JR-ART.NET

JR (French, born 1983). 28 Millimeters, Portrait d’une generation: Byron, Paris, 20ème arrondissement, 2004. Installation image. Wheatpasted posters on building. © JR-ART.NET

After I’ve walked through the exhibition for a bit, I meet with coordinator of the project Geertje Smeding, who tells me more about what inspired the museum to take part in this travelling exhibition. “We're trying to connect new audiences to the museum, attempting to reach people in different ways. For example, we invite them people from different neighborhoods to come here for free. Now the people from Groningen are actually part of the artworks exhibited by the museum”, Smeding explains showing and swiping through the pictures of the Inside Out project in Groningen on her phone.

She adds: “The material is really easy to use. This is thin, regular paper, printed and pasted yesterday! For us, it's a proper way of showing how they (street artists) do it on the streets. In a way, these pasted portraits are bringing the streets into the museum.” Even though street art and graffiti have been around for a couple of decades, they are not often seen inside the walls of traditional museums. However, as this exhibition shows, the boundaries between the inside of the institution and the outside of public space are continuing to blur as time progresses.

Smeding: “It's accessible. It's not really high art, it is a low key way of making art that is arguably easier to understand. It’s about storytelling.” On the other side of the museum, a local graffiti artist Mick la Rock is applying the last brush strokes to her artwork. Groninger Museum shows their collection of graffiti and street artworks acquired from the 1980s simultaneously with JR’s exhibition.

Mick la Rock finishing her work at another exhibition on grafitti on view at Groninger Museum, photo: Maia Paduraru

JR at Groninger Museum, 'Wrinkels of the City', photo: Maia Paduraru

JR started off as graffiti artist. As he transitioned to photography and video, he kept the element of the street art alive in his work. To him, the concept of art for/of the streets means freedom of expression and equal accessibility to art regardless of one’s social status. In his projects, its the people themselves that use his tools (his camera and printer-van) to tell their story. JR and the people photographed are co-creating; the role of the artist is not so much to tell his point of view but to spread these people’s stories

In an interview with France 2, JR explains that the streets function as the galleries that represent his work. Walking around through the museum, this does make me wonder what it really means when streets are coming into the museum. Is street art becoming ‘traditional’ art, in the sense that it can be sold, archived and collected? Or should we view this exhibition rather as a celebration of projects for the people? As an attempt to really draw new audiences to the museum, by having them not only view but also participate in the production of contemporary art?

JR: Chronicles is on view at Groninger Museum until the 12th of June, 2022

Maia Paduraru
studies journalism at the University of Groningen

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021