JR, the prolific street artist who blends black-and-white imagery with the technicolor of the outside world, turned his lens to something different during the pandemic. In “Contretemps”, his latest solo exhibition at Perrotin Tokyo, JR is showing a series of images taken around his native Paris—part love letter to the city, and part beacon of hope, he continues his trend of paying homage to photographic greats before him while creating something entirely new.
This new series is inspired by The Lovers of the Bastille, the 1957 picture by Willy Ronis depicting a tender moment between a couple standing on a balcony overlooking the city, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame cathedral hazily outlined in the distance. JR’s reinterpretation, Ballet, le porté de la Bastille #5, features two ballerinas standing atop the July Column in the center of the Place de la Bastille, their arms outstretched like the bronze sculpture that sits atop it. Like Ronis’s image, it functions as a cityscape, with the Sacré-Coeur basilica, another Paris monument, in the distance. Taken in the early months of 2021, in the midst of lockdowns and fears of getting sick and dying, Ballet is an expression of freedom and possibility, soaring high above the city and worldly concerns.
Ballet features throughout this new series, with images of a ballerina, tulle skirt and all, straddles the roof of the Louvre, or stands atop a ladder as if she is floating in mid-air, arms outstretched in a classic ballet pose. There’s a hopefulness across the images, a whimsy that was absent during the bleak period in which he created these photographs. Ballet, Sur les Toits du Louvre #2 shows a bright blue sky at the start of the day, a new dawn that could herald good news. It’s decidedly different in tone than the work for which he’s more known: images that have a sense of humor, or irony. Instead, JR tries out something new: sincerity.
In addition to the new series, “Contretemps” presents never-before-seen images from his ongoing series Unframed, in which the artist takes archival photographs, typically in black-and-white, and pastes them in larger-than-life scales across the sides of buildings or other structures. The newly unveiled images were taken in 2012, inspired by photographs from Watabe Yukichi. JR placed his images around the city of Matsuo, Japan, like a policeman pasted across a wall, inspecting papers, or looking down at the rubble inside of a dilapidated, run-down building.
While Unframed is always a joy to see—the juxtaposition of the old-timey images and hyper-modern environments clashing beautifully—it is his Ballet series that steals the show. JR presents a dream-like Paris, filled with hope in a seemingly hopeless time, and demonstrates his photographic prowess beyond his street art work combining the old with the new.
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
“Contretemps” is on view at Perrotin Tokyo until November 20, 2021.