JR’s portraits put a face on Tohoku

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

French artist JR, whose show of photographic artwork is on display at the Watari-um (Watari Museum of Contemporary Art), inspires while questioning the role of art in war-torn and disaster-ridden places, asking whether art could really change things for the better. JR not only documents but also involves people he meets, curating ad-hoc galleries of human faces that confront their social status-quo and the problems that besiege them.

Awarded the TED (Technology-Entertainment-Design conference) Prize in 2011, JR outlined his use of art to turn the world inside out, a phrase that would go on to become his latest project involving Japan.

“JR — Could art change the world?” spans all four floors of the Watari-um and takes an almost topographical view of the developing world, amongst social unrest, economic reality and ecological uncertainty. The graphic and photographic imagery covers four of JR’s major projects concluding with a collection of portraits made from over 400 people living in disaster-affected towns, from Kesennuma to Fukushima. The photos are then enlarged and wheat-pasted amidst the debris and reconstruction and left to suffer the natural elements.

The show’s title — a question never really answered — is left for the visitor to decide. Walking through each project and respective country — eloping with Parisian delinquents through the streets of Les Bosquets in Montfermeil famously mentioned in “Les Misérables” and the site of riots in 2005 (“Portrait of a Generation, 2004-2006″); along both sides of the West Bank, Palestine and Israel (“Face 2 Face, 2007″); negotiating Brazilian favelas and slums in Sierra Leone, Liberia, India and Cambodia (“Women are Heroes, 2008-2010″) — your preconceptions change as portraits grow in size, dominating their fragile surroundings as willing residents openly invite you into their homes. JR’s visual patronage liberates women normally marginalized and exploited, and these communities temporarily become landowners, with their faces adhered to the rough exterior of buildings slowly demolished by hand.

The show concludes on the second floor where the double-height space lined is with portrait after portrait of people from Tohoku who gently stare back at you. A photo booth invites you to take part. “Inside-Out,” as the project is called, intends to establish a global art piece, one that you’re encouraged to join. Your printed image falls from the ceiling for you to take away, display, hang at home or simply roll up.

With much of the current art market considered in terms of investment, the focus of which sadly leans toward increasing personal wealth, each JR project circles the globe to avoid, as best the artist can, the personal and political gain of a powerful few. This is a genuine call to the art establishment, and to everyone else, to get involved and take responsibility in some way. With Tohoku and other areas in Japan now willing compatriots, he hopes to overcome adversity, bringing each working community to the foreground as active participants and not just mere bystanders, and giving them voices despite the scale of their own harrowing situation.

“JR — Could art change the world?” runs at the Watari-um, The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art till June 2. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (till 9 p.m. on Wed.). Closed Mondays, except for April 29 and May 6. ¥1000. www.watarium.co.jp