Interview: JR Discusses His Art Series Collaboration with the Dancers of the New York City Ballet

JR is unstoppable and ubiquitous. At any given moment, the French artist, whose photographs appear on walls around the world, is in one place, while his work is exhibited, pasted, and enjoyed by people in many other places simultaneously. As we interview him, a week before his multi-part New York City Ballet Art Series project debuts to the public, he is pasting with a small team outside the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. A few days later, he will install a photograph of 80 ballet dancers on vinyl across the entire floor of the theater's lobby, in addition to 10 close-up photographs of them on wood on the ground floor. At the same time, he has an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cincinnati open until February, he opened another exhibition at Dallas Contemporary on January 11, he's releasing a book about the Unframed project in Marseille this month, and he has Inside Out photobooth trucks in Dallas and in Paris.

And that's just right now. His 319,557+ Instagram following gets teasers of his hangouts with Pharrell and Robert De Niro, in between spending time in Cuba with his Wrinkles of the City collaborator, José Parlá, and visiting other exhibitions like KAWS' recent show at Mary Boone gallery.

After winning the TED Prize in 2011, JR launched the Inside Out project, giving his work over to the people. Anyone, anywhere, can send a photo of themselves to him, he will mail it back, and they can paste it wherever they like. The project, now over three years old, was made in to a documentary that premiered on HBO, showing everyone how successful it was in helping people powerfully express themselves, and their stories, simply with paper and glue. A week after it premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival, JR took over Times Square with the Inside Out photobooth truck and invited New Yorkers to paste their portraits on the ground and reclaim the space of hyper-advertising.

We interviewed JR for Complex TV about working with ballet dancers, New York, and keeping his impressive momentum. 

I was really intrigued by that world, by the dancers who work all their lives and become such fine artists/creators/dancers/performers. I wanted to create something with them.

What are the different parts of your collaboration with the New York City Ballet Art Series? You are pasting an image outside the theater and installing an image in the lobby, too, right?
The project with the New York City Ballet was an invitation for me to put my eye into a world that I really didn't know, the ballet world. They basically gave me the whole theater to play with—to install artworks. This is an exhibition; there’s no ballet on stage. The three nights of the opening have selections of ballet, but it's a way to invite the public to come and discover this world that maybe they don't know, or if they do know it, to give another eye to it.

Can you explain how you developed the concept of the eye in the lobby, how you came to photograph it, and how long the process took?
Basically, when they invited me, I had never been to a ballet before. So first I came and started looking at ballet. I was really intrigued by that world, by the dancers who work all their lives and become such fine artists/creators/dancers/performers. I wanted to create something with them. That's why I came up with the idea of making them sculpt a giant eye. That’s why you see almost the whole company sculpting into this giant eye. I wanted it to be installed here on the floor, so that between the intermission of the ballet, people would actually walk on them. But if you want to take distance to look at the image, you have to walk up the building to get a different perspective of it. So it would create a movement, because people would be walking on it, realizing that they're in the middle of a piece. People would take pictures, creating natural movement until you discover the whole piece.

I fell in love with this city 10 years ago, and when I decided to set up the studio here, it accelerated a lot of things.

What was it like to work with dancers as your models or medium?
It was really strong for me to work with dancers from the New York City Ballet, because they’re such professionals that if you have an idea, they make it happen. If you have no idea, they will make something happen. We had a couple days of shooting, which was real exchange and real inspiration for me. A lot of images came out of the shoot that I will exhibit on the night of the opening. For me, it was a really special moment.

You have really taken New York in the past year, especially for the Inside Out project in Times Square last April. When did you first come to New York, and what does this city mean to you, since you’re not originally from here?
I’ve lived in New York for two years, but I’ve been coming here every year for the past ten years. It’s a fascinating city for me. I fell in love with this city 10 years ago, and when I decided to set up the studio here, it accelerated a lot of things, because I wanted to do more walls when I was in town, and a lot more projects came. Even when there are no projects, it’s such a strong base when I work, and when I prepare the different actions we’re going to do around the world. It’s a really inspiring city for me, and a lot of the ideas I have come from spending time here.

My work has no borders. Most of the time it doesn’t even belong to me anymore.

How do you keep your momentum? You have such an operation of projects occurring simultaneously around the world. Even when you’re here, there are Inside Out trucks in other parts of the world, your new exhibition in Dallas, and otherwise. Also after winning the TED prize, how important do you think it is for your work to be not just where you are but everywhere?
You know, for me, my work has no borders. Most of the time it doesn’t even belong to me anymore. It’s fascinating for me to see people around the world enlarging it and making it their own message—that’s the Inside Out project I launched when I did the speech at TED two years ago. For me, I need to work this way; I travel a lot, and we always work as a team. We prepare exhibitions together. I’m always there for the pasting, because that’s my favorite part, but the whole construction of things, of the projects, of the truck going around the world—that's sometimes a team that goes. Whatever is Inside Out doesn’t need me, because we set up the base so that it could work without me. It’s not my project anymore, it’s the people's art project. So for me, it’s a separate part. I always post on Instagram to explain when I’m there and when it’s my team, how it functions and how it goes. It kind of goes with the flow— there’s no real plan. Sometimes we don’t know what we're going to do next month, and sometimes we know what we're doing for most of the year. So it really depends. We still live by the day. 

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