In August 2015, French street artist JR plastered one of his signature B&W pieces of a ballerina in the midst of a jeté before a shanty urban housing development on a wall in Tribeca. The ballerina is the New York City Ballet Co.'s Lauren Lovette and the housing development depicted behind her is Cité des Bosquets, an appellation for a French project in the east Montfermeil suburbs of Paris.
During the Fall of 2005 Les Bosquets was the nasty scene of a series of French riots which manifested as a result of a number of social maladies having been conflagrated after the tragic deaths of two teens hiding from the police. Issues such as racial discrimination, a high rate of youth unemployment, and the oppressive practices of the Paris police against the poorer families living in these projects were all at the heart of the issue. These riots would result in a national state of emergency which would last for three months and cause a backlash by French parliament against France's hip hop artists whom they were claiming incited the banlieue youths to riot in the first place. It was an ugly scene all the way around.
These events clearly left an impression in the mind of JR as the artist had developed a deep connection with the Les Bosquet neighborhoods of east Paris. In 2004 JR had begun his "Portrait of Generation" project. This endeavor consisted of JR photographing the people of the Parisian projects and then pasting them onto the walls of buildings. These people were essentially the same embroiled in the horrific riots which would take place the following year.
In 2014, as a continuation of his "Portrait of a Generation" project, JR would create and help choreograph a ballet. While working with the New York City Ballet Art Series JR would collaborate with a number of other artists, including the dancer Lil Buck and composer Woodkid to produce the ballet he'd give the honorary title: Les Bosquets.
In April 2015, a short 18-minute film, which includes documentary film footage of the 2005 riots shot by JR, as well as an adaptation of his ballet would premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York. The film, as does the ballet, tells two stories. One, the chance encounter of two individuals amid the chaotic backdrop of the riots. The other, the story Les Bosquets itself. The narrative of the former is the symbolic tale of a journalist, as danced by Lauren Lovette, sent to cover the riots and her meeting with the photographer/artist/activist, Ladj Ly, danced by Lil Buck.
JR's relationship with Ladj Ly began in 2004 when it was Ly who brought JR to the projects and showed him the sides and people of La Ville Lumière that were very rarely seen. It is also Ladj Ly who is the subject of an immortal photograph taken by JR himself as part of his "Portrait of a Generation." It is a strikingly powerful image depicting Ladj holding and pointing his camera as if it were an automatic weapon.
JR's "Portrait of a Generation" project, culminating with his ballet and short film, has shown that the Bacchich art of the streets, post-modern as its aesthetic may be, can very easily, and very naturally, mingle with Apollonian arts of classical restraint and synthesize into something beautiful and highly transcendent.
All of this brings us to the piece JR plastered onto the side of a building in New York. We know who the subject is and we know where the image come from. However, one has to think, what if no one knew about the Paris riots in 2005? What if nobody had heard of Lauren Lovette? What if nobody had seen the film? We can rest assured that the wide majority of people, even the highly erudite masses of lower Manhattan, probably have little to no knowledge about any such matters or subjects. I certainly didn't.
It took a magnificent piece of art such as this to fire up the learning faculties and delve deep into the portal of art and history the piece presented me with. However, art doesn't have to be looked upon as a portal to a compendium of empirical data alone. Information which tells us who designed the piece, what it meant to the artist, why it represents what it does- these are all useful things to know; naturally. Yet art always works on two levels.
To use one of the great masters of the Enlightenment, Kant's descriptive bifurcation of the nature of reality is useful in thie regard. The context of this image fulfills all of the answers to be found to any number of questions. However, as Kant so duly noted, there lies a counterpart component, one where there are no answers because there are no questions. This is the wonderful and mysterious noumenal realm where the rations and reasons of context play no part. And it is there where the majesty of this mural truly hits home.
Out of context
Upon my first viewing of JR's Tribeca mural I gave no thought to context. I was simply transfixed by the archetypal transcendent image that lay before me. A graceful swanlike ballerina leaping in the foreground before the ironic shanty landscape depicted in the background. It is a powerful post-modern image of a conjunction of the opposites, to use Jung's phraseology, if ever there has been one.
In the mural the dark and forboding constrictive prison-like setting has been sublimated into merely a backdrop for the grace of the artistic spirit to spring forth and eclipse. Seen in this light, it doesn't matter who the ballerina is, or from where the image derives from. It is simply how it appears in and of itself; or at least how it appears in and of itself to me.
With this in mind I can't help but wonder if the location was specifically selected by JR for one more dimension to this work that might otherwise go unnoticed. Below the mural, not even attached to the building is a chainlink fence. I'm sure there are other symbols of limitation one could possibly come up with, but a fence is a pretty good one.
In images taken as the plaster mural was going up we see there is no fence. It can be deduced that the fence was removed in order to accomodate the little cherry picker and re-installed after the work's completion. When one considers the premium space goes for, particularly anything as far as potential parking, in New York it's hard to believe that the fence is Whatever the case may be, there is now a fence there. If this fence is a mere serendipitous convergence of experience, or whether it is there as an intentional portion to the mural of JR's prima ballerina in a fixed flight of fancy, it serves to help convey an eternal message. It is a message that is rooted in the noumenal realm of experience and jumps out at us in three-dimensional reality here in the phenomenal realm if we avail ourselves to see what is there to be seen.
In this regard, the figure of the dancer can be interpreted as an unfettered symbol of the artistic imagination in a majestic flight of transcendence beyond any physical limitations of this world; of which there are many. In this work these limitations are represented by the urban projects seen in the background of the mural, as well as whatever limiting agencies which may or may not exist in the physical unconscious manifest world we reside in - such as, for instance the great and imposing Satanic existence of a chain link fence. The objective is to rise above; to transcend. One of the greatest weapons we as a conscious species has in order to fulfill this objective is through the artistic imagination in flight. Perhaps JR and Ladj Ly were onto something in the photograph of Ly holding his camera like a gun. This weapon can manifest itself in many immutable ways. For instance, one can complete great works of art on the sides of buildings or one can take up dance, or even create a ballet. One might even complete a work of art on the side of a building of a ballet dancer as she gracefully leaps into the airs of eternity leaving the strife and discord of materiality behind.
There can be no doubt that there is a strong hint of coincidental irony in the fact that JR's mural is just across the street from a branch of the Valley National Bank, and a mere six blocks north of Manhattan's financial district. Rivaled perhaps only by Central London, never before has there been a region of the globe more concerned with matters of materiality. It is nice that JR has blessed this region with a friendly reminder.
If we are to strip this image of its context, of its subject, and of its shape, what we are essentially seeing is an intricately defined rendering of the ancient Taoist symbol of yin-yang, where we read into it a narrative of opposite contrary forces existing as a means for one side to overcome the other. This mural