THE ARTIST JR OWNS THE BIGGEST ART GALLERY IN THE WORLD. HE EXHIBITS IN THE STREETS OF THE WORLD, MAKING ART FOR ALL AND CATCHING THE ATTENTION OF PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT THE ONES WHO VISIT MUSEUMS. IT ALL STARTED THE DAY HE FOUND A CAMERA ON THE PARIS SUBWAY.
“‘THE GUERILLA ART MOVEMENT. THE STREET IS THE BIGGEST MUSEUM’ J.R.”
ROBERT DE NIRO : ELLIS PROJECT
An epic snowstorm; permission to shoot on a historic site that had been closed to the public for 60 years; and the availability and willingness of Robert De Niro: those were the impossible ingredients that the artist JR needed to make his short film. For most first-time filmmakers, the bar would seem too high.
But JR, the Frenchman known for his large-scale street photography who has lately branched off into other artistic fields, like ballet, pulled it off. The result is a 14-minute film, “Ellis,” set in the formerly abandoned hospital on Ellis Island, which was once a way station for immigrants. It’s also the site of JR’s recent installation “Unframed – Ellis Island,” in which he and his team pasted archival images of immigrants in the very rooms they passed through during the great wave of migration in the early 20th century.
The film, with a scripted voiceover written by the Oscar winner Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) and music by the French songwriter Woodkid, follows Mr. De Niro as he walks through the hospital, which was abandoned in 1954 and stands as a ruin, with broken windows and rusted lockers. “It was very eerie,” Mr. De Niro said at the film’s New York premiere on Friday on the Lower East Side. It will run Wednesday-Sunday through Nov. 8 in a pop-up exhibitionsponsored by Galerie Perrotin, JR’s dealer, at 130 Orchard Street. (His photos and some works on wood will also be on display.)
Instead of posting the short online, JR, a star of social media, is offering to send a copy of the film free to people who want to screen it in small groups. (Details are here.) He is also organizing free showings in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and at Miami Art Basel. “The idea of the film is not to make any money, but just try to get people to see it,” he said.
JR was first inspired to make the film as a way to document the crumbling hospital. “A lot of the places you see in the film have decayed so much, you can’t see them anymore,” he said Friday. He also wanted to highlight its connection to the current global battles over migration, by including photos of contemporary undocumented United States immigrants, scattered among the collages of faces from a century ago.
Robert De Niro on the set of "Ellis," a short film by the artist JR.Credit
For Mr. De Niro, who said in an interview that he wasn’t sure if any of his family members had come through Ellis Island, the motivation was simpler. “JR asked me to do it and Jane asked me to do it,” he said, referring to Jane Rosenthal, his partner in Tribeca Film, “and I said O.K.” He and JR have collaborated on several projects, though it has been years since Mr. De Niro agreed to do a short. “I think JR is very personable and likable and smart, and generates enthusiasm,” he said.
Traveling to Ellis Island is an undertaking, involving passports and ferries, and Mr. De Niro arrived with little advance notice, for just half a day, from the set of the David O. Russell film “Joy” in Boston last winter. The small “Ellis” crew scrambled. There was no time for rehearsal, but the snow was fresh. “Everything could have gone wrong, and that’s it, and there would be no movie,” JR said. Instead, “we got really focused.”
“And there was Bob, in the middle of a storm,” he added. “It was magical.”
For more than a decade, the French artist JR has been pasting outsize portraits onto urban surfaces in Parisian banlieues, Nairobi slums, São Paulo favelas. His subjects: the locals, the not-famous, the threatened and the threatening, figures in the margins. Their monumental, expressive faces glued to buildings suggest — in ways that a building’s simple face cannot — that a city’s people are its infrastructure too, or are at least inseparable from it.
Lately, though, JR’s work, what he calls his “actions,” has reflected on the unmooring of people from places. Immigration is the subject of “Unframed — Ellis Island,” which opened last fall; the installation features enlarged archival photos displayed throughout the island’s abandoned hospital. For this week’s magazine, devoted to the personal migrations of New Yorkers, JR photographed more than a dozen recent arrivals.
“The first question we ask you when you get to the city is where you’re from,” says JR, who refers to his “mixed origins” and is himself a relative newcomer, having lived part time in New York for four years. “That’s something really special. Where I come from in France, when someone asks you, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ people can take it the wrong way. People say: ‘What? Am I not French enough for you?’ Here, there’s not a sense of that. Everybody is from somewhere, and that’s the strength of the city.”
After JR took each person’s portrait in his studio, the likeness was printed larger than life on stock paper (often on several pieces taped together). Then he photographed each subject again outside, on the street, holding up that magnified self. To be an immigrant is to have moved; to be a New Yorker is to keep moving. As captured here by JR, these newest New Yorkers become portraits in motion, unstuck, peeled loose, set free in the city. DEAN ROBINSON