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JR, "Portrait d Christoph" (2004), gelatin silver photograph

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JR was a clever, quick-eyed opportunist of a kid from the banlieues of Paris. His parents were immigrants, one Tunisian and the other Eastern European. His show at the Saatchi Gallery, JR: Chronicles — an enthralling, thoroughgoing record of much that he has documented around the world over the past 20 years — encompasses the fruit of all the chances he has seized during this relatively short span. 

This is public art, political art, which bears comparison with the murals of Diego Rivera and the social realist photography of Dorothea Lange. This is art with an agenda of some urgency, and its goal is this: to invite us to see the world differently, and even to encourage the possibility of a spirit of community. This work could not be more different from, say, the hope-bereft photography of Don McCullin, that trafficker in human pain.

And today all this work of JR’s is penned inside a grandiose, beautifully refitted former barracks dating from the turn of the 19th century, complete with a pedimented Grecian portico, in Chelsea, one of London’s smartest locations, where, just beyond the door, the cash just spills and spills. Duchamp would have enjoyed the irony. 

JR, “Face 2 Face, Drora, Sculptress” (2007), gelatin silver photograph

For a kid like JR, art, at the beginning, meant graffiti — tagging on walls, under bridges, and at night most likely. Risky and illegal ventures. In 2000, by which time he was 18 years old, he got lucky. He found a 28mm still camera on the Paris Métro. That modest and well-weathered piece of equipment is on display in this show — how small and unassuming it is! 

He didn’t hand it in to the authorities. He made much better use of it: he started to teach himself the art of photography. He took off to one of the housing projects — it’s called Les Bosquets, and JR is now a familiar sight there — that exist beyond the Paris inner ring road, where those who cannot afford the high-toned cultural life of the center live. Try and get good public transport to and from Les Bosquets on any weekday evening, and you will begin to acquire a feel for just how marginalized the area is.

The fact that the camera was so small, and that JR had to get so close to what he was snapping on the hoof, meant that those he photographed between 2001 and 2004 — the locals who happened by, important enough specimens of humanity to enthrall him — trusted the boy. 

The ghostly, zoom-lens wallahs of the mainstream often tend to operate from rooftops, a little like snipers. JR, milling with the community at street level, brought new life, the jolt of animation, the spark of individuality, to what many Parisians choose to overlook as rubbish-strewn nowheres.

JR, “Women Are Heroes, Action dans la Favela Morro da Providência, Favela de Jour, Rio de Janeiro” (2008), installation image; heat-pasted posters on buildings

Many of those early portraits are in this show. JR gets very close to people (with a camera so small, he could not have done otherwise), and already you notice that he is doing something rather unusual. Portraits usually seem to demand a degree of seriousness, if not solemnity. They exist to be a lasting record. Subjects collude with photographers to achieve that outcome. 

JR didn’t approach it that way. He asked the people he met to make funny faces: eyes boggling, baring teeth in a snarl, tongues lashing out. That sort of thing. Ridiculous, you could say. Bursting with self-mockery, and camera-mockery, you might add. He saw into the circumstances of their lives, the places where they had no choice but to live, in a different way too. He began to learn important lessons in how to embed images of human beings within architectural locations, how to make the human and the humanly fabricated work together…

It all began in Paris, but he soon took his camera elsewhere, and the projects increased in both size and ambition. Between 2005 and 2007 he photographed both Israelis and Palestinians on each side of the separation, mounting and mixing giant images of human faces side by side across a stretch of the forbiddingly faceless border wall that exists precisely in order to divide communities from each other as harshly as possible. 

The result feels like a coming together, a casual rapprochement that would be impossible amid the tense daily realities of the conflict. Again the portraits are shot through with humor, irreverence, brazenness — as if they are on a dare, a challenge to dangerously lazy assumptions. Which face is Israeli and which Palestinian? It’s often impossible to say. They seem to be almost partying together, as if all animosity, by some miracle that always seems to elude the politicians, has vaporized.

JR, “The Wrinkles of the City, Action in Shanghai, Shi Li” (2010), work in progress, China

In the past few years he has flitted about from place to place, carrying his benign weaponry of reconciliation along with him. No frontier feels closed to him. He has worked in Brazil, Turkey, the USA. One global project has been a celebration of the oldest members of communities (The Wrinkles of the City, 2008–15). Another celebrates the contributions of women to society (Women Are Heroes, 2008–9). 

He often embeds a face into the shape of a building that is partially in ruins, deftly fitting the image into the curve of a partially collapsed wall, for example. The staging helps to intensify and dramatize the portrait, as if disintegrating bricks, crumbling mortar, and a time-ravaged human face are all engaged in a deliberate act of creative collusion, setting off the sheer drama of human decrepitude, in all its pathos.

Some of the best of his later works are giant, frieze-like murals that might set your mind chasing after unlikely comparisons with Delacroix or the Parthenon friezes. They teem with human life, friend and foe collaged in together, making raucous mayhem. He often projects giant pairs of human eyes onto walls or buses or down into water. Eyes of interrogation. Eyes of naked human appeal. He is always after the eye’s point of view — as Leonardo once remarked, the unique perspective of the soul’s window

JR: Chronicles continues at Saatchi Gallery (Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London) through October 3.

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