In The Eye of the Beholder

Art Series Returns with JR at the Helm

By Terry Trucco

Last October, JR, the peripatetic French artist known for creating grand-scale public photography projects the world over, quietly paid a visit to New York City Ballet. Though he prefers to photograph his subjects outdoors, he spent three days ensconced in an immense white studio with a rented HD camera, a technical crew, and more than 75 dancers clad in shades of white and cream.

What was going on? As befits an artist who is never seen without his fedora and dark glasses and who declines to say what JR stands for, he teased his Instagram followers with images of dancers canopied and cocooned in reams of white paper and with hints of a collaboration with NYCB. “Stay tuned,” he wrote.

This Winter Season all is revealed, as the New York City Ballet Art Series fills the David H. Koch Theater for the second year. The series features annual collaborations with contemporary artists who devise new works inspired by NYCB for display in the Company’s home theater. It is also a nod to the Company’s celebrated history of tapping visual artists like Jasper Johns, Julian Schnabel, and Keith Haring.
In last winter’s inaugural installation, FAILE, the Brooklyn-based team of Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller, constructed a 40-foot tower for the Promenade fashioned from hundreds of hand-painted and printed wood blocks, mixing ballet iconography and pop imagery.

This year, JR also sets his sights on the Promenade, blanketing the floor in hundreds of images he snapped of the Company during the October shoot. Audiences strolling the Promenade can look underfoot at a massive installation of photos. But gaze down from the Fourth Ring and the assemblage comes into focus pointillistically as an enormous image of an eye.

A happy side effect of the Art Series is its ability to attract new audiences to the ballet. Last year’s installation helped lure more than 3,000 first-timers to two specially priced performances. Of those who attended, 75 percent said they were likely to return. This season, all tickets for the Art Series performances on January 23 and February 7 and 13 will once again be priced at $29.

It was McNeil and Miller who suggested JR for the series, and placed the call to see if he’d be interested. “I said, of course. It would be fascinating,” JR recalled in a phone chat as he drove through Paris, where he has a studio. “As an artist I work in areas I’ve never worked before. It’s part of the challenge. When New York City Ballet approached me, I’d never been to a ballet before. It seemed perfect."

Exploring the limits of what is and is not possible and promoting interactions between people are themes that dance through JR’s work. A graffiti artist at 15, he switched to snapping pictures of fellow graffitists after finding a camera on the Paris Metro. He moved on to photographing locals in disenfranchised neighborhoods, creating enormous portraits—“in black and white so they wouldn’t be mistaken for advertisements”—and wheat-pasting them on Paris walls. Soon he was traveling the world with camera, paper, and glue. International attention followed for projects like Face 2 Face, portraits of Israelis and Palestinians of the same professions pasted side by side on walls in several Israeli and Palestinian cities. At age 28, he won the 2011 TED Prize; his talk on how art can change the world has had more than 1.5 million online hits. The TED Prize spawned the global art project INSIDE OUT, in which clusters of black-and-white portraits, blown up to poster-size, are displayed together in public spaces—such as Times Square, which was taken over by images of its visitors last spring. INSIDE OUT posters have been transported to more than 120 countries worldwide.

To prep for the Art Series installation, JR attended rehearsals and performances, and hung out backstage during NYCB’s Spring and Fall 2013 Seasons. He liked what he saw, especially George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. “That was impressive,” he says.

Watching the performances prompted him to choose an eye as his installation’s focal point. Eyes are a recurring image for JR, used as a way of seeing a particular individual as well as a means for viewers to look at themselves and the world. “In the ballet it struck me that you don’t really see the eyes of the dancers because they’re too far away. You look at the movement,” he says—hence his decision to sculpt the missing eye of the dancer from photos of the dancers.

His hope is that audiences will interact with the installation, scrutinizing it from higher floors and unusual angles and posting their own shots on Instagram. “If they don’t move, they’re not going to be able to see the piece,” he says. “As people move over and above it, it’s going to be like a dance that no one choreographs. It will be a dance the audience creates for themselves.”

Self-portrait © JR
Art Series exhibit photos © Marc Azoulay