PARIS — We have long loved our illusions. In Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (1 CE), two celebrated Greek painters hold a friendly competition. The first, Zeuxis, reveals a painting of grapes so verisimilar that birds descend to peck at its surface. He then asks the other, Parrhasius, to draw a curtain obscuring his picture, only to discover that the curtain itself is the painting.
This account, likely apocryphal, has held sway over the reception of Western art since the onset of Neoclassicism in the 18th century. But perhaps more interesting than its purported moral — that trompe l’oeil is the mark of artistic genius — is the fantasy that has sustained the oft-repeated tale all of these years. Whether looking to the still lifes of Willem Claesz. Heda and John F. Peto, the photorealistic paintings of Chuck Close and Richard Estes, or even virtual reality today, the deception of a flat surface giving way to three-dimensions has unfailingly seized the human imagination.
The current installation at the Louvre by the artist JR taps into this age-old fascination. Commissioned to carry out a “takeover” — a term perhaps more suited to home improvement reality TV shows — the artist has imposed a sprawling grayscale photograph of a section of the Louvre Palace (specifically, the Pavillon Sully) over approximately 170 glass panels on the western side of I.M. Pei’s once-controversial pyramid (built in 1989). When facing the pyramid’s entrance, at the edge of the Cour Napoléon, the imposing glass shard effectively vanishes. As JR’s photo colludes with its surroundings, what remains for the eye to behold is a chimera of the pavilion.
By disappearing architectural mass, JR’s installation recalls the vanishing acts of High Baroque church fresco, exemplified by the work of the Italian painter Andrea Pozzo (1642–1709). In the nave of Sant’Ignazio in Rome, Pozzo deployed his brush to vaporize the stone of the barrel vault, revealing a soaring, paradisal realm brimming with angels. JR’s installation, however, dissolves one monument to exalt another: it is not an impervious barrel vault unto the heavens, but the replacement of arguably the second most photographed monument in Paris with the stately palace behind it.
The bulk of JR’s work relies on the human face, as seen in the exhibitions Portrait of a Generation (2004–06), Face 2 Face (2007), and Women are Heroes (2008–09), but this installation enlists photography to draw attention to architecture. “Walking around, I realized people turn their back on the pyramid to take a selfie, they don’t look at it,” he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal; although JR might be addling camera-wielding tourists in the process, his aim was to foster moments of “bond[ing]” over the “absence of something.”
A paradox, though, nags at the installation. By shrouding one of the city’s most photographed monuments, and depriving visitors of a snapshot, JR has spawned something even more photographable. He hoped people would “seek the right angle” for the optimal illusion and “talk to each other,” but this ‘vanishing point’ seems to draw zombie-eyed visitors, more keen to snap than chat as they cluster around — hovering over a centripetal spot that subtly redirects traffic flows in the plaza, seducing visitors toward the perimeter to satisfy their photo-hunger.
With the pyramid out of sight, the installation confers importance on the Louvre Palace, at times overlooked by passersby today as the soporific backdrop to the glass, Modernist marvel. But does it actually draw people nearer to the palace — its history through the hands of kings, emperors, and toppled regimes from the 12th century onward, its synthesis of French Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical architecture — or to the pavilion in the photograph — built in 1639 by Jacques Lemercier, remodeled during the Second Empire by Hector Lefuel, ornamented with sculpture by Antoine-Louis Barye — now that all of this can be seen without interruption? Likely not. It beckons to be photographed more than studied.
This is an installation of and for photography. Not only is photography the medium of the artwork but so too is it the medium of its reception: JR’s illusion is at its most convincing when reduced to two-dimensions. In plain sight, at first, the Louvre’s oatmeal-hued stone and the shadows that rove across it render the grayscale photograph covering the pyramid lifeless. But when captured, especially in black and white, the palace in the round and JR’s image of the pavilion are forced to succumb, in unison, to the dictates of the photograph, which Roland Barthes once described as “flat Death.” Here though, in the flatness of a visitor’s photograph, the mirage of the installation is born.
Never does it pass for the real Pavillon Sully, for the contrast between the value of JR’s image and the real palace is too jarring. But the effect is uncanny in a different way when photographed: a triangular slice of the palace appears to have been diligently plotted with a few clicks in Photoshop, and then sapped of its color. If JR’s work does produce an optical illusion, it is that of a photograph, taken directly from meatspace, that already seems digitally doctored.
If you turn to look up from a photograph of the installation to see the site straight on, it is too late: as if an after-image, the Louvre palace cannot be seen in the flesh right now without looking edited. JR’s photograph, in sum, renders the world around it ephemeral, manipulable — a living Photoshop template. This ancient city’s most hallowed cultural institution becomes, itself, a flickering apparition.
By staging a disappearance, the installation employs photography to fulfill a wish. Whether you are from Paris or elsewhere, you have likely come from a place with tired institutions, sluggish and unyielding. Attempts to legislate reform prove frustrating, democracy and equality appear more mythic than promissory, and so on we go, behind screens, playing with the surface of things. JR’s installation discloses the pact we have with the present: that today, you can change the world — though only as an image.