By Madeline Lai
A survey is a step-by-step and temporal progress. Making art is somewhat a similar process for JR, the French photographer and artist who won the 2011 Ted Prize. What’s more, his new Hong Kong exhibition itself is presented in the form of a survey and called JR: A Survey.
This is the second exhibition presented by the non-profit Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation, launched last year. Located at The Ocean in Repulse Bay, the exhibition space takes a form of a long and one-way format that sets out as a linear narrative surveying JR’s works from across different periods. The black and white colour scheme recalls the photos printed and pasted by JR and his team on the façades and bodies of buildings and trains from over the years.
This survey presented in photos reiterate JR’s trademark — some photos take up the full height of the wall, a monumental scale with a strong visual impact.
The timeline ends with a video session where viewers can watch films made by JR and listen to the stories of the people who had these photos pasted in their neighbourhood. Knowing what they think can help the viewer understand JR’s works; he said that instead of asking what these works meant, it would be better to ask the people what the works meant for them.
Viewers can also join JR’s global project Inside Out by taking a portrait in the set photo booth, experiencing the feeling of seeing the printed portrait hung on the lifted circulating rail on public display, then and collecting the portraits afterwards.
Walking through the exhibition, viewers can recognize JR’s consistent concern for timely social, human rights and political issues. The location and subject chosen usually create a sense of antagonism and confrontation. For example, in his 2007 work Face 2 Face, he pasted portraits of ordinary Palestinian and Israeli people on the wall that separates the two places. When he juxtaposed these portraits side by side, a new cityscape of human faces and spectacle arose. He said it had been hard to identify who was Palestinian or Israeli. That’s where and when an influence of art operated as people around started looking at the portraits and wondering what happened. There is strong engagement with local communities. JR’s projects have left traces from France to Cambodia and Cuba.
Viewers would see his series dedicated to women and elderly people as the main subjects. Usually women or elders are among the unnamed and forgotten heroes of a city, a large-scale portrait of them being hand-pasted means something to them and their family. But with his Inside Out project, JR is breaking the geographical barrier and people from all around the world can experience the portrait work online. Before each project, JR researches a district and carries out the pasting fast; he document the project in photos and videos. Applying the survey concept in JR’s works, the interpretation, conclusion or suggestion is likely to be what viewers do afterwards.
Confronting and addressing political and social issues can be risky. JR told the Guardian in 2010 that anonymity, using only his initials, is significant for him. Though his works are mainly in black and white, he operates in a grey area when he creates art in public space. His artwork consists of performance elements such as pasting the portraits on the building, and interaction with the community – explaining what he is doing to everyone from the police to the media. The many big close-ups of eyes in the exhibition give viewers a feeling similar to the artist and his subjects, of consciously being watched.
JR previously took Inside Out to the top of a footbridge in Central as well as putting on gallery shows and a public exhibit at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. So what impact will this latest exhibit have on Hong Kong people? Undoubtedly, visitors will learn about the issues explored by JR, since the layout and content are direct and well-explained. It is a good start for those looking to learn more about JR and about social issues in contexts outside Asia and Hong Kong.
Still, there are downsides. Firstly, since the majority of the projects are site-specific, much of the impact is lost when they are taken out of their contexts. Secondly, the remote location, in a hip shopping mall in Repulse Bay, is more likely to appeal to middle and upper-class visitors. There are big windows overlooking expensive houses and a beautiful beach. There is a sharp contrast with the photos taken in slums and run-down spaces. Thirdly JR works in areas a long way from Hong Kong, so the connection and relationship with people living in Hong Kong may not be imperative.