The Artist JR Will Plaster the Facade of This Year’s Armory Show With the Faces of Immigrants

The street artist will meld archival images from Ellis Island with portraits of Syrian refugees on the exterior of Pier 94.

JR, Unframed: An Immigrant Family Views the Statue of Liberty From the Ellis Island Immigration Station Dock (2014), installed in Ellis Island. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service Statue of Liberty National Monument.
JR, Unframed: An Immigrant Family Views the Statue of Liberty From the Ellis Island Immigration Station Dock (2014), installed in Ellis Island. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service Statue of Liberty National Monument.

On the heels of JR’s recent Oscar nomination for Faces Places, a documentary he co-directed with filmmaker Agnes Varda, the French street artist is already working on his next project: an ambitious public art installation for the Armory Show. For the work, titled SO CLOSE, JR is plastering the exterior of Pier 94 with photographs that meld archival images from Ellis Island with portraits of Syrian refugees.

The massive installation has been organized by art dealer Jeffrey Deitch and Artsy, and is a sequel of sorts to “Unframed,” the artist’s 2014 photo installation on Ellis Island. For that project, JR took over the former immigration facility’s abandoned hospital complex, pasting enlarged photographs of patients onto the buildings’ crumbling walls and broken windows.

“He is one of the rare artists to combine artistic innovation with political engagement,” Deitch wrote in an email to artnet News. “JR’s unique community-based approach to the creation and experience of art has inspired and engaged people who had never before connected with contemporary art.” (Deitch’s booth at this year’s fair will be dedicated to JR.)

JR, Unframed, Hygiene Conference Delegates reviewed by JR, Ellis Island, USA (2014) Photo: JR, courtesy Galerie Perrotin.

JR, Unframed, Hygiene Conference Delegates reviewed by JR, Ellis Island, USA (2014). Photo: JR, courtesy of Galerie Perrotin.

The new iteration of the work considers immigration in a 21st-century context, with JR recontextualizing one of those historic images with pictures of modern-day Syrian refugees that he photographed at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in 2017.

As VIP art lovers line up to enter the New York art fair next month, they’ll be faced with a super-sized tableau of struggling immigrants patiently waiting for a chance to enter the country. While considering these poignant images, geography and history seem to melt away, leaving only a human face staring back at the viewer.

JR with his immigration-themed artwork on the Mexican border. Photo courtesy of the artist.

JR with his work on the Mexican border. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The artist, who previously touched on immigration issues by installing a massive photograph of a Mexican toddler peering over the border fence, is conscious of the Armory Show’s proximity to the New York Passenger Ship Terminal, a point of entry into the country for some ocean-going ships.

Seeing the piece is meant to encourage “all who enter to think about issues of access, entry, ease or difficulty therein,” Jen Mergel, vice president of programming for the Association of Art Museum Curators, told the New York Times,” even the inconvenience of having to wait, if you’ve ever been to the Armory.”

JR, "Unframed—Ellis Island" (detail). The children's heads are covered as part of the treatment for favus, a fungal infection. Photo: Sarah Cascone.

JR, “Unframed—Ellis Island” (detail). The children’s heads are covered as part of the treatment for favus, a fungal infection. Photo courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

Mergel is the curator of the fair’s Platform section, titled “The Contingent,” which will count SO CLOSE as its marquee work, one of 15 “site-responsive” pieces. “In destabilizing times, it feels essential to highlight art that thrives on contingency: on the assembly of different elements and ever-changing outcomes,” she said in a statement.

The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Sarah Cain, Beth Campbell, Tara Donovan, Leonardo Drew, Jeffrey Gibson, JR, Amalia Pica, Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley, Berndnaut Smilde, and Wilmer Wilson IV will also present new works, while Elmgreen & Dragset, Sir Richard Long, Mary Sibande, and Wang Xin are contributing large-scale pieces that have never been shown in the US.

The artworks will range from performances—Pica’s work involves a solitary figure throwing confetti and then painstakingly picking the pieces up—to painting, such as a colorful Cain mural at the entrance to Pier 94, to sculptural installation, including Donovan’s 33-square-foot pyramid built from tens of thousands of clear plastic straws at the center of the fair.


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