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Artist of the People

JR's ambitious new mural, The Chronicles of San Francisco, at SFMOMA this month, captures the populace and paradoxes of a diverse American city.


The Chronicles of San Francisco (2018, detail) by JR, on view May 23 through April 27 at SFMOMA.

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Artist JR pasting the roof of his studio truck with the image of a homeless individual in San Francisco, 2018.

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A homeless person participating in The Chronicles of San Francisco, 2018.

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JR’s studio truck in San Francisco, 2018.

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JR and his team creating a rough draft of his large-scale mural, 2018.

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JR and his team placed cutout versions of each portrait on a foam-board wall inside his studio truck to create a rough draft.

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The physical draft allowed for the digital construction to be easier.

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The portraits for each day’s session had to be printed and cut out prior to being added to the mural draft.

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Ever since the French graffiti tagger-turned-globe-trotting street artist JR started pasting black-and-white photographs on the rooftops and Metro tunnels of Paris as a teenager, he felt “that if I could just see a new place with my own eyes and get to know it from the people directly, I could show how different it is from what we see on television and in the media.”

Over the last two decades, JR, now 35, has hopscotched the globe, installing his trademark larger-than-life portraits of everyday people in unexpected public places (a process that was delightfully documented in the 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary Faces Places). “It could be as close by as a few train stops away in Paris, which, at first, felt like traveling to another world,” says JR, recalling moving at age 17 from his Franco-Tunisian parents’ home in the Parisian suburbs into the city to live with a cousin after being expelled from high school. That same impulse has carried him as far away as the slums of Nairobi, Havana, the West Bank or the U.S.-Mexico border—sites of some of JR’s most famous and audacious public art projects.

The 2011 TED Prize winner and one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2018, JR first received global attention in 2005 after his portrait of filmmaker Ladj Ly holding a video camera like a gun, pasted on the notorious Les Bosquets housing project, became the televised backdrop when the Clichy-Montfermeil neighborhood erupted in what would have become the biggest riot in modern French history.

JR’s work never fails to go viral on social media. It is instantly recognizable, yet not easy to categorize. He’s covered more than 21,528 square feet of Kibera, Kenya, rooftops and local train cars with the squinting eyes and laughing faces of local women. He’s placed towering black-and-white images of athletes on giant scaffolds around Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Olympics and installed a 70-foot-tall apple-cheeked Mexican toddler peering over the barrier wall between Tecate and San Diego County.

During a recent visit to San Francisco (from New York, where JR has lived since 2011, although he spends most of his life on the road and calls himself a “citizen of the world”), he explains that no matter where he’s working, he is guided by the same simple populist idea–that his art can be a positive, socially unifying antidote to a world saturated with branded imagery that he sees as either unrealistically glossy and aspirational, or overplaying grittiness to stoke fear.

“It’s not complicated, my art. It’s about how we can break down boundaries and reconnect with each other,” JR says during an interview at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where his largest and most complicated project to date, an approximately 16-foot-high by 107-foot-long interactive LED mural called The Chronicles of San Francisco, goes on view May 23 in the museum’s Roberts Family Gallery, a free space off the Howard Street entrance.

It’s JR’s first major digital installation in California. The colossal black-and-white digital mural features the portraits of 1,200 San Francisco men, women and children. The Chronicles of San Francisco is the culmination of the two months JR spent last year traversing the city in a 53-foot-long trailer truck he outfitted as a mobile photo studio. He parked at 22 different locations and welcomed anyone to step inside and participate—from Warriors star Draymond Green, Gov. Gavin Newsom and tech CEOs to San Francisco police officers and firefighters, recent immigrants, children and homeless people.

“We never planned our day—didn’t start with appointments or sketches,” JR says. “People would just walk by and ask, ‘Hey, what’s your project?’ They were pretty curious and responsive. In New York, when I worked on a mural there, it was a lot harder to get people to stop.”

JR and his sound team recorded brief interviews with every participant, asking each of them: “How do you want to be represented? You decide.”

He recalls hearing just about every response imaginable and the teeming mural reflects them all. “Someone would say, ‘I want to be playing badminton.’ And someone else, ‘I want to be taking selfies.’ ‘I want to be working.’” Also: Sleeping. Getting a tattoo. Selling newspapers. Giving birth. Roller skating. Dancing. Boxing. Cooking. Scootering. And, since it’s San Francisco, a whole lot of protesting. Marc Benioff, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, co-CEO of the largest tech employer in San Francisco, Salesforce—and a personal friend and financial supporter of JR’s Chronicles (the artist is adamant about not taking corporate backing)—is also in the mural, carrying an “Equal Pay for Equal Work” sign.

“You’ll be able to click with your iPhone or Android app on every single person and hear what he or she has to say,” says JR. “It’s a technique I used for Time’s interactive Guns in America issue. The special thing about the mural is that it’s not a photo. It’s alive. The people in it move. You will be completely taken inside the spectacle of life in your own city.”

All the portraits and selected accompanying interview transcripts are reprinted in JR: The Chronicles of San Francisco ($40, Chronicle Books), a new book available May 21, which closely documents the project.

Seated in a quiet administrative conference room at SFMOMA in front of a wall-size mock-up of the new mural, JR is animatedly explaining that the inspiration for Chronicles was his own intense curiosity for an American city that he admits he “just couldn’t connect with.” Tall and lanky, wearing spiffy white sneakers and a trilby, JR is refreshingly without the sunglasses he always wears in public and in photographs, Godard-style, which, in the past, he noted is to protect his anonymity (“since I never ask permission to paste artwork in public, I basically have to hide for what I do”) and might now be an always-on-brand gimmick. (Agnès Varda playfully ribbed him for it in Faces Places.)

“I didn’t get San Francisco,” he says. “I’d spend two or three days here, and I’d hear great things or bad things, and I couldn’t understand the whole rhythm of the place. Then I thought, ‘This could be an interesting city to do a mural like in Paris’”—where his very first mural, of Les Bosquets residents, was unveiled by former French President François Hollande in 2017—“but take it to the next level.”

Taking inspiration from one of his idols, master Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, JR wondered how he could create a panoramic portrait of a city as diverse and idiosyncratic as San Francisco. His reverence for Rivera made the new San Francisco endeavor a no-brainer when he heard Rivera’s own 10-panel, kaleidoscopic 1940 fresco “Pan American Unity” will be transferred from City College to SFMOMA and shown as the centerpiece of a major exhibition, Diego Rivera’s America, at the museum in 2020. “Pan American Unity” will show in the same unticketed gallery as Chronicles directly following JR’s run.

“The fact that JR is so inspired by Diego Rivera makes his project for our city and our museum all the more meaningful,” says SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra, who was introduced (by Benioff) to JR’s work, just as he was looking for “a contemporary artist who started in the streets who might be brought into our galleries. Rivera and JR share in the aspiration that art engages for public purposes—that it inspires social change.”

JR describes the five weeks he spent roaming the city last winter as “life changing because I finally saw the full spectrum of this town and its contradictions. There is an amazing openness here—much more than any other city in the U.S. actually. Freedom is so present. I mean, you can walk around naked if you want. But, it’s also hard for people to afford to stay living here. The greatest technology minds have come up with all their crazy ideas here to change the face of the world, but can they make their own city an example to the rest of the world?”

JR has an ebullient personality and restless energy, bouncing out of his chair to point out memorable characters in Chronicles. “Like this baby being born,” he says, pointing to a reenactment of a hospital birth scene. “This woman had given birth days before, and she came with her nurse to reenact it.”

“And look at this guy,” says JR, up again on his feet, smiling, remembering. “He was just walking by with his duck. On a leash.”

Turning more serious, JR says: “The homelessness situation here is represented on every side of the mural. There are families, people who wanted to be represented sleeping in the street or who came from shelters.”

His main objective, as with all his art, remains bridging gaps between people and “engaging the community,” he notes. “I don’t know what will happen; I just know something can now that my work is done. The real work of the project begins once it is live in the museum’s free space. I’m hoping people come see the mural and meet one another. The CEO of Airbnb and a homeless person, maybe they’ll meet each other now that they’re part of the same piece. It breaks boundaries.”

JR, who says the more than 1,200 San Franciscans in the mural are forever linked, gave a rousing presentation at SFMOMA last fall, when he previewed images from The Chronicles of San Francisco. “Sometimes, you have to do the craziest thing to break boundaries and reconnect people,” he said, “like put a giant photo of a kid over the border between Mexico and the U.S. That’s what I feel like I’m doing here in San Francisco—installing these huge images just so that people reconnect in the real world.”


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco 

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