JR Mounts a Towering Monument to Refugees at The Armory Show
On an eerily warm afternoon in mid-February, the French street artist JR is in a Bushwick, Brooklyn, warehouse with three members of his artistic team. Clad in matching, deep-green jumpsuits, they’re busily at work on JR’s latest New York project, using wheatpaste to adhere giant photographs of migrants onto sturdy steel armatures. The looming, 25-foot-tall photographs of two men, five women, a young boy, and a baby are enlargements of images from the archives of Ellis Island. Size aside, they appear rather straightforward.
The artist, sporting his characteristic fedora and dark sunglasses, gestures to the massive photo installation in progress. “Do you know the little trick of these images?” he asks, excited.
It’s there, in plain sight: JR replaced the Ellis Island immigrants’ faces with those of present-day refugees he met at the Zaatari camp, on the Syria-Jordan border.
“The real process of my work is to actually connect people,” JR tells me. “I wish I could bring these people here physically, but they cannot travel—they’re stuck in a camp, they can’t enter Jordan and yet can’t go back to Syria. So I’m bringing their images, and I’m bringing a discussion.”
Titled So Close (2018), and presented by The Armory Show, Artsy, and Jeffrey Deitch, the new photographic mural is the centerpiece of the Manhattan art fair’s Platform section this year. Anyone riding on the West Side Highway this week will catch a glimpse of it, and it’s the first thing fairgoers will see upon entering the The Armory Show at Pier 94—a vision of immigrants in a line, waiting.