On December 13, 2014, ten days after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a New York City police officer in the killing of Eric Garner, as many as 50,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue from a rally in Washington Square Park to voice their anger, their dismay, and their resolution to end the reign of unchecked police brutality directed at black citizens. Leading the cortege was a line of protesters carrying black-and-white posters that formed a massive close-up of Eric Garner’s eyes. An image of the vigil was widely circulated by observers, the press, and organizers. It was powerful, spectral: the disembodied gaze of a dead man staring out at the city whose lawmen had needlessly and callously ended his life.
The poster assembly was the creation of a young French artist and unabashed humanitarian who goes by the moniker “JR,” and who has emerged in recent years as one of the most ambitious figures in the world of art. JR’s work blends protest and entertainment, high art and street art, the global and the local, the photograph and the guerrilla fly-poster, into one continuous and potentially open-ended project. In 2011, he was awarded a $100,000 TED prize to create his “Inside Out Project”: Participants take portraits of people in their own communities and send them to JR, who transforms them into posters and returns them to their “cocreators” for pasting on the streets, buildings, and sidewalks where they live. According to the Inside Out Project’s website, more than 230,000 posters have been printed and distributed in this way, to at least 124 countries around the world. Human faces a story tall and eyes the size of shipping containers have materialized in slums outside Nairobi and in favelas in Rio; on the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank; on buses and trucks in Sierra Leone; among peace activists in Juarez and gay-rights activists in Moscow; and on buildings in Tehran, Medellín, Jaipur, and the South Bronx. A poster of a young girl designed to be visible to US drone pilots was unfurled in an undisclosed location in Pakistan. At the solidarity march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the eyes of the magazine’s murdered editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, like those of Eric Garner in New York, hovered over the crowd.
More recently, JR has turned his attention to the experience of immigration to the United States. Last fall, he created an installation at the abandoned Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, pasting archival images of the interned arrivals to the New World amid the ruins. In April, the cover of The New York Times Magazine featured an installation by JR about a young man walking in the city. The subject, Elmar Aliyev, from Azerbaijan, was one of 16 newly arrived immigrants whom JR had photographed on the street. In the early-morning hours of April 11, JR and his crew pasted Aliyev’s portrait onto the pavement of the plaza in front of the Flatiron Building. The work was largely invisible to pedestrians because of its size, but was legible from a great height: time-lapse photography taken from the Flatiron Building’s roof captured the making of the portrait for the Times website. JR then ascended in a helicopter to snap the cover shot, a bird’s-eye view revealing an anonymous friendly giant framed by yellow cabs, crosswalks, and the restless people of New York. The result is both spectacular and almost worthy of Escher in its recursive visual form: an aerial image of a poster of a photograph, all by JR. The installation, like all of the artist’s work, was designed to be ephemeral. Made of only paper, ink, and glue, it was no match for the city’s Department of Sanitation and was gone by nightfall.