Florence has an exciting new work of public art by JR! I have been following the work of this artist for many years and am truly thrilled that Palazzo Strozzi has managed to engage him for an installation that will last until August 2021 – longer than many of his works. If you aren’t familiar with JR, take a look at this photo of his installation in the Renaissance palazzo in Florence, and then I’ll tell you more about JR in Florence and how it situates within his body of work.

JR Florence

JR, La Ferita, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence | Ph. Alexandra Korey

Who is JR?

I cannot recall the first time I heard about JR. Perhaps it was when he won the TED prize in 2011, which provided the first funding for his Inside Out project. These works, giant black and white poster-portraits, printed and pasted on walls around the world, are about taking back identity, community; it’s a participatory art project that places emphasis on the human element in every location. People anywhere with an idea, a project or an action with a strong statement, can apply to participate.

JR jumping in Florence | Ph. Ela Bialkowska, OKNOstudio
JR jumping in Florence | Ph. Ela Bialkowska, OKNOstudio

His most memorable installations, in my opinion, are those in truly challenging locations. The giant photograph of playful little Kikito who looks over the US-Mexico border popped up in 2017 with the news that a border wall might be built; in this small community, the border wall exists, and here, JR took down divisions, if only for a few hours, with a long table that extended on both sides, with food, water and music shared by all.

JR, GIANTS, Kikito and the Border Patrol
JR, GIANTS, Kikito and the Border Patrol, Tecate, Mexico – U.S.A., 2017

This reminds me of his Face to Face, 2007, when close-up portraits of Israelis and Palestinians (who were first interviewed to gather their stories) were pasted on both sides of the wall present in multiple cities.

JR, Mountain | Ph. JR on Twitter

In 2019 and 2020 JR worked in a maximum security prison alongside the prison population and guards. In The Yard, he captured their stories in a non-judgemental way and pasted their portraits in the yard, looking up, visible only from above. While this lasted only three days, he later returned to follow up with “Mountain”, which makes the prison wall disappear, and is still intact.

To call JR an “artist” would be reductive. He’s a cross between photographer, social activist and anthropologist, though he also is involved in film and ballet. He wants to change the world with art, which is why he founded a non-profit called just that: “Can art change the world”. The main activities of the charity are Inside Out Project, Casa Amarela (a cultural center located in Morro da Providência in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), École Kourtrajmé (a free cinema and arts school in the suburbs of Paris) and Refettorio Paris (a social kitchen by chefs and artists aiming to reduce food waste and bring dignity to people in need, in collaboration with Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura).

JR in Florence

Inside Out project, Teatro Verdi, Florence | Ph. Valeria Raniolo

The work that popped up in March 2021 at Palazzo Strozzi is actually is not the first work by JR in Florence, but it is the only one directly created by the artist. In two other moment, photos that have been part of the Inside Out project have made statements in the city. Earlier in 2021, the Orchestra Regionale della Toscana and Teatro Verdi took part with portraits that highlight the musicians of the local orchestra who have been out of work due to the pandemic, bringing them out on to the streets on billboards in the Santa Croce area.

But perhaps fewer people will recall that an episode of the Inside Out project was installed in 2012 on the palazzo ex-Meccanotessile in Rifredi, a much contested ex industrial space that for years has been proposed for rehabilitation as a cultural space. The portraits represented Italians in favour of fair immigration laws that were then under parliamentary discussion, and the Florentine installation was one of eight locations in Italy.

JR has indeed been spending a lot of time in Italy recently: last year, Galleria Continua in San Gimignano held the first solo exhibition by JR in Italy, with works related to his short film Omelia Contadina, an absolutely touching tribute to the farmers of the Alfina plateau.

JR at Palazzo Strozzi

La Ferita, JR

JR, La Ferita, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence | ph. JR

La Ferita, the wound, is a site-specific and time-specific installation on the façade of Palazzo Strozzi, an exhibition space in Florence (read: all my reviews of exhibitions at Palazzo Strozzi). The installation measures 28×33 meters and, unlike most of the paste-art photos, this one is printed on aluminium Dibond panels which are affixed to scaffolding. The scaffolding was carefully installed to not rest on the Renaissance building’s stone but is rather affixed to extant metal structures like the bars on the windows.

Like an open wound that rips open and reveals the interior of Palazzo Strozzi, JR has personally photographed the courtyard, empty exhibition spaces and upstairs library of the Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento. These images are blended together and have been added to, creating an “anamorph”, a distorted projection of a ruin that is a nod to seventeenth-century rovinismo. We see an impossible exhibition – Botticelli’s two most famous paintings from the Uffizi and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines – in the empty first-floor rooms, reflecting a desire to render the work internationally recognizable.

The installation is intended as a comment on the extended closure of places of culture due to the pandemic, and, I must add, is the second ingenious use of public space that Palazzo Strozzi has made this year while their interior exhibition space has had to remain empty.

The work is intended to be ephemeral, but as JR says. “the ferita will remain in our heads, this is just a visual that wakes up thoughts in us. The photos are at the exact point of the same rooms inside; it is an opening in advance of the real opening.” At the press conference, he also spoke about how he was interested in peoples’ interpretation of, or reactions to, the installation. He wants people to stop, maybe on their way to work after such a difficult year, and be able to interact with art at a time when we cannot visit museums.

Indeed, the corner of piazza Strozzi has become the place to be right now: the city is quiet and still, while there is a respectful buzz below JR’s work. He himself talks about how his art “works well on social media” and is designed to be captured and shared with a simple smartphone, thus spreading the message.

JR au Louvre, La Pyramide, 7 Juin 2016, 21H45 © Pyramide, architecte I. M. Pei, musée du Louvre, Paris, France, 2016

You might notice that there appear to be no people in the photograph that opens up Palazzo Strozzi, not even in the imagined exhibition space. JR points out that other pieces he has done have been primarily architectural – like when he “disappeared” the pyramid in front of the Louvre – but that the people are there. They are not in the image, but they helped create the work, to paste it or to install it, and later they are in the street below, looking at it and photographing it.

 

This project is the first of a new program called Palazzo Strozzi Future Art, with the support of philanthropist Andy Bianchedi, that promises to further develop the dialogue past and present through collaboration with major contemporary artists.

 

JR’s installation at Palazzo Strozzi will be up until August 2021.

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