JR Tours Abandoned Ellis Island Hospital
His photo installation offers a slice of the city's history.
On a misty morning in October, artnet News trekked to Ellis Island to take part in a rare hardhat tour of the abandoned hospital there that once offered treatment to sick immigrants hoping for entry to America. Those derelict structure is now home to “Unframed—Ellis Island,” an enchanting art exhibition by French artist JR (see “JR Brings Haunting Photo Exhibition to Abandoned Ellis Island Hospital“).
To create the installation, JR dove into the island’s archives, digging up images of doctors, nurses, and immigrant patients at the hospital, blowing them up to larger-than-life scale, and pasting them on various surfaces across the crumbling compound—the hospital was comprised of many buildings. JR’s project marks the first time that an artist has been allowed to create work in the space, which has been closed to the public for over 60 years. Even he had to wait several years before being granted approval by Save Ellis Island president Janis Calella.
When the facility opened in 1902, it was the country’s largest public health service hospital, but by the 1930s it was in decline. After serving as a Coast Guard base and a military detention center, the complex shut for good in 1954. While the main part of the island was refurbished and converted into an immigration history museum that opened in 1990, the hospital has remained closed. In recent years, the Park Service has done its best to keep nature from accelerating the buildings’ decline, boarding up windows and preventing plants from overtaking the structures. Other than that, the facilities have been allowed to decay naturally, and the years and the elements, notably including Hurricane Sandy, have taken a toll.
Today, the abandoned complex is dusty and full of debris, and it would be hard to imagine a time when it was ever a working medical facility—were it not for JR’s work, which serves as a tangible historical reminder. When artnet News fell behind the group, the silence of the place quickly became overbearing. Except for the sound of dripping water, and the occasional plaintive cry of a seagull, the empty hospital was eerily still.
“I’m not a big believer in ghosts, but I definitely felt something here,” JR told artnet News.
For the project, the artist has worked almost entirely inside the hospital. The only outdoor piece appears on the back wall of a caged porch in the psychopathic disease ward, a blown up image of several patients getting fresh air in that very spot, taken many decades ago.
All of the buildings on the island are connected by a covered walkway, leaving disoriented visitors with the distinct sense they are trapped in a maze. JR’s unsettling photographic interventions do little to dispel that discomfort. Pieces appear in the sitting room of the former home of the commissioner of immigration of the port of New York, just beyond the contagious disease hospital, and next to the industrial-scale machinery in the old laundry room. Other spaces, like the morgue, JR has left untouched, letting the architecture, and history, speak for itself.
An ephemeral-looking piece has been pasted across fragile window panes, some already shattered or missing. A group of dark-eyed children stare back mournfully, their heads covered due to favus, a fungal infection that could get them deported if treatment failed. “The main problem for children separated from their families was communication,” said JR. “I still feel a lot of their energy.”
One of the final photos on the tour was pasted onto a window pane. It was an image of a trio of immigrants with their backs to the viewer. JR designed the installation so that if you situate yourself correctly, you see the Statue of Liberty between them in a recreation of the background of the original photograph. This taps into a fundamental aspect of coming to Ellis Island. “America is so close, but you might not make it,” he explained. Although only two percent of immigrants were sent back to their native lands, their fear of rejection was very real. “Some people call it the island of hope, but others call it the island of tears.”
Currently, tours of “Unframed—Ellis Island” will accommodate no more than 10 people although there are plans to expand next year. Tickets are available here, and hard hat tours are being scheduled through the end of May.
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