Working with inmates and guards, the French photographer’s gargantuan mural made in Tehachapi prison is the centrepiece of his first UK retrospective, opening at the Saatchi next month
In October last year, JR was eating lunch in New York. He was gearing up to attend the opening of his first major retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. His phone buzzed, and he saw a call from a long-time friend he hadn’t heard from in a while. JR recalls: “And he said, ‘What’s up, brother, how are you? Would you ever do any art in a prison?’”
The 37-year-old Parisian photographer’s face, in his trademark trilby and glasses, emanates from my screen. We’re deep into the pandemic, in the midst of which his new show – an even bigger retrospective at London’s Saatchi Gallery, titled JR: Chronicles – is about to launch. Sat in lockdown Paris, he seems cheered by remembering more innocent times. “I said, ‘Yes of course, but it’s too complicated’,” JR recounts. “It’s so much paperwork. But, if I could do something, I’d cover the entire jail with pasted pictures, like I did at the Louvre.”
His friend told him he would make it happen, and that he would call him straight back. “Yeah, right,” JR thought. “I was sure I would not hear back from him again for years.” JR’s friend, it turns out, was in contact with the governor of maximum-security prisons in California. And that governor, the year before, had happened to feature as one of 1200 portraits in JR’s project, The Chronicles of San Francisco, from 2018. “And so the governor said, ‘Give him full access to all my Californian prisons’.”
“I didn’t see it coming,” says JR of the work that would dominate his time up until lockdown. “And that’s always been the case with my strongest projects.”
JR’s studio is set up to allow him “to do something from one day to the next”, he says. He actively practises impulsiveness, “to do something on instinct”. The day after attending the Brooklyn Museum opening, he got a flight to LA, and set to work.
But JR needed a place where he could paste. He started looking for a prison that could become “a playground”. Using Google Earth, JR and his team looked at 35 jails in the state, before happening upon California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, a supermax state prison two hours from Los Angeles. The prison’s roof doubled as a concrete yard, and it looked “very graphic”, says JR. He immediately travelled there, gave his name at the gate, and was led straight in by the guards. Inside, he was confronted by “cages of men, men with swastikas on their face”, but also “men who were teenagers when they were incarcerated, many for three strikes, or who had been dragged into gangs, and now they are facing life sentences.”
Aesthetically, the Tehachapi project is similar to the way JR handled his commission for the Louvre – a physical commandeering of an architectural institution by the people who populate it. And yet it is difficult to imagine two more contrasting cultural buildings anywhere in the world.
The mural that spread across the prison’s roof, visible from planes flying above, was installed by the serving inmates, former inmates who returned to the prison for the first time since their release, and prison staff working with JR’s team. The portraits consisted of 338 separate strips of paper, and yet the pasting process took only a few hours.
The Saatchi exhibition is the first time JR’s work has been shown in a gallery setting in the UK. The show also displays work from JR’s first-ever series, Portrait of a Generation: photographs of JR’s friends from Paris’ banlieues, created in the years leading up to the riots in Clichy-sous-Bois in 2004, when JR was 21. JR’s friends were often young, Black and hooded; a popular figure of hysterical fear for the Parisian chattering classes. The exhibition shows how JR upended these classist and racist stereotypes by secretly pasting the portraits in some of the city’s most upmarket arrondissements.
In 15 years since these first presentations, JR has pasted his portraits amidst some of the world’s iconic cityscapes – not just Paris, but New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Alongside the late nouvelle vague filmmaker Agnès Varda, he was nominated for an Oscar for his feature documentary Faces Places, in 2018. After gaining representation by the Parisian contemporary art gallery Perrotin, JR has managed to bag increasingly glitzy commissions, including a 2018 Time cover story exploring America’s continuing attempts to find a middle ground on gun control.
All of this work is on show at Saatchi. And yet Tehachapi stands out, for it encapsulates this semi-anonymous artist’s remarkable ability, even in the Foucaultian institutional depths of an American high-security prison; the shared humanity that photography can singularly provide, and then turn monumental.
JR: Chronicles is organised by the Brooklyn Museum, and will be displayed from 04 June to 03 October 2021 at Saatchi Gallery, London, with major support by Art Explora
Tom Seymour is a Correspondent for The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper*, BBC, The Telegraph, CNN, Independent, Foam, New Statesman, Wired, Vice and The Royal Photographic Society Journal, for whom he won Writer of the Year at the PPA Awards 2020.