This summer, the Parisian street artist known semi-anonymously as JR installed his massive, black and white portraits inside the classically built Panthéon, tackling that age old divide between art and architecture. Erected in the latter half of the 18th century in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the Panthéon was intended to be a neo-classical church and ended up as a famous mausoleum. The Panthéon has an ornate, Gothic exterior embellished by Corinthian columns and beautiful stonework, and inside boasts lofty domed ceilings, religious murals and stunning marble floors. Glass windows and skylights fill the galleries with natural daylight, giving the interior the hushed feeling of a religious space. For the duration of the exterior renovations the Panthéon will exhibit JR’s Au Panthéon, a playful and immersive photographic installation consisting of collaged, floor to ceiling mosaics of anonymous, contorted faces.
Born in 1983, JR began as a graffiti artist on the streets, rooftops and tunnels of Paris, and took up photography after he found an abandoned camera in the subway. Using the street as his public art gallery and the general public as his audience, he worked at first with small, wheat pasted images that gradually increased in scale. His guerilla artworks began gaining international attention in the mid-2000s, and his work has continued to grow in scope and scale since winning the Ted Prize in 2011. He is known best for his site-specific, photographic installations that are conceptually inspired by current political events. In Portrait of a Generation, inspired by the 2005 riots in the suburbs of Paris, JR created images of “thugs” and installed them throughout the richest neighborhoods of Paris. In Face 2 Face, he photographed Israelis and Palestinians performing similar blue-collar jobs and illegally installed their portraits side-by-side in Israel and Palestine, questioning the two cultures unrelenting hostilities. As part of his ongoing Inside Out Project, JR brought his nomadic style to Times Square, installing a specialized photo booth on the site where the first photo booth was created a hundred years ago. New Yorker’s were invited to make self-portraits that were printed on the spot and pasted onto the sidewalk: our very own walk of fame.
In preparation for Au Panthéon, JR created a website where anyone from anywhere could upload a self-portrait, allowing him to choose the most expressive models. In addition to these digitally submitted images he drove the streets Paris in his photo booth truck, snapping images of locals and tourists. Wrapped around the exterior dome of the Panthéon are 4,160 of these faces, anonymous people, staring outward toward Rue Soufflot and the surrounding buildings of the Sorbonne. Inside the building, his faces create a vast collage on the floor and ceiling, arranged in circular patterns that fade away in gradients of black and white. Viewers can either look down on or gaze up at the numerous expressions ranging from silly to serious to candid. The faces themselves reflect the great diversity of JR’s project, which covers all ages, genders and races and all aspects of life that make up our global appearance. The people themselves, however, look so unmistakably 21st century, that the juxtaposition between the images and the building, between the art and the architecture, becomes one of the most compelling aspects of the installation.
Without competing for attention, the Panthéon itself and the self-anointed “photograffeur” compliment each other. While the building reflects history, culture, war, religion and power, JR’s artwork directly addresses our innate humanity. By depriving viewers of context he nullifies our assumptions, judgments and biases in order to remind us of our similarities. It’s hard not to wonder about race, class and gender when looking at JR’s portraits, and he subtly forces us to question our own ingrained prejudice. There is something playful, tragic and timely about JR’s Au Panthéon. As recent global events highlight and strengthen our fears—the Israeli/Palestine conflict, invading Russian forces in Ukraine, racially targeted police brutality in the Midwest—this installation serves to remind us, lightheartedly and without dogma, of how alike we really are. JR’s artwork tries to counter “isms” like racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, by forcing us to stop and look at each other.
All Photographs Courtesy Alissa Guzman