French Guerrilla Artist JR on Why Failure Yields Great Work

Art Talk
November 4, 2019

The Artist: The French artist JR still declines to give his full name. The 36-year-old is perhaps best known for blown-up, black-and-white photographs that he’s glued onto some of the world’s most symbolic public spaces. He was arrested by French police in 2013 after putting his work inside a housing project that was scheduled to be demolished, and has called himself an “urban activist.” His message is to make the historically invisible undeniable, from a tribute to the women of Rio de Janeiro’s Morro da Providência—blown-up images of their faces and eyes giving their favela a female gaze—to Kikito, an installation at the U.S.-Mexico border that shows a Mexican child peering over the wall. He also famously made the Louvre’s I.M. Pei pyramid seem to disappear as part of a 2016 trompe-l’oeil exhibition.

His Latest Show: Marking the artist’s first major exhibition in North America, JR: Chronicles brings some of his most storied projects to the Brooklyn Museum’s Great Hall. Chronicles takes viewers through his career, from his first camera (a 28mm camera he found on the Paris Metro in 2000) to Face 2 Face (adhering humorous paper portraits of Israelis and Palestinians on the wall that divides them), to the Inside Out Project (the global participatory art project he embarked on after winning the Ted Prize in 2011, with contributions from 142 countries and counting).

His Defining Moment: The Brooklyn Museum show starts with 28 Millimètres, Portrait d’une génération, Braquage (Holdup), Ladj Ly, 2004, the first photograph from JR’s 2004 Portrait of a Generation, showing his friend Ladj Ly wielding a video camera like a gun. The artist considers taking the photo the moment everything changed for him. “We were both like 18, 19 years old in the projects outside Paris,” he says. “I just [pressed the button] without thinking.”

His Uniform: Director Agnès Varda has compared JR’s signature look—a hat and dark glasses—to Jean-Luc Godard (she’s collaborated with both men). But the choice is more functional than aesthetic. “It’s because the work is illegal. It’s a way of not having to mask myself entirely,” JR says.

His Influences: French director and actor Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine, about conflict between police and residents in the suburbs of Paris, was a crucial influence on the 13-year-old JR. “I think I’d never seen a movie that was black-and-white, that talks about, you know, the projects in France that I could relate to,” he says. “It was very powerful.”

Inspired by the film, JR formed a creative collective called Kourtrajme with his contemporaries; Kassovitz and actor Vincent Cassel are the “godfathers” of their group. “I see that a lot of our common success is because we supported each other always,” he says. When filmmaker Ladj Ly, a member, won at Cannes this year, Kourtrajme was there in a show of support.

His Struggles: “You know, as an artist, you should take failure into account. Because you can fail as an artist and I think that’s the strength,” JR says. “I think a project is so much better if there’s more chance for failure than success. That’s often how I approach my work—if a project seems too easy, it’s not interesting.”