‘JR’ AT THE PALAZZO STROZZI – CULTURE OR COVID AS AN OPEN WOUND?

David Clement Davies

The Global hurt from ‘Covid 19′ to people’s lives encompasses museums, Art fairs and so many artists’ experiences too. If ‘shared’ isolation has an unexpected potential to unite, and perhaps inspire new directions. The strange bonus for many Italians, in a country still under Lockdown, is that Venice’s Grand Canal now runs clearer, the air is cleaner, no crowds swarm to take Selfies in front of great works and often unbearably long queues have evaporated. It carries both melancholy and a threat, yet in Florence, that great city of Italian Art, the French photographic artist ‘JR’ has just made a virtue of an open wound.

‘The Wound’ at the Palazzo Strozzi, by the artist

‘La Farita’, ‘The Wound’, is ‘JR”s 33 Metre high, black and white photographic collage on aluminum that currently decks the front of one of Italy’s most celebrated but also innovative museums, the Fifteenth Century Palazzo Strozzi. Unveiled on 19th March this year, it also marks the beginning of a new initiative, the Strozzi’s ‘Future Art Program’. Heralded as a means of celebrating and supporting contemporary art and artists, also encouraging public accessibility. In a city of so many centuries of public art, and private patronage too, it includes a new annual public art commission.

‘JR’, a hip, bearded 38 year old Parisian, is no stranger to today’s rather classic mix of political poignancy and eye grabbing showmanship. With the bravura of the British Street Artist Banksy, and more than a cedilla of the late Christo, that greatest lover of wrapping up public buildings, ‘JR’ was the man who made the Louvre’s glass pyramid disappear, in a technique he describes as anamorphosis, placed an image of a dignified old lady on the stair of one of Brazil’s poorest favela’s, in his ‘Women are Heroes’ project, and had a huge, adorable child peer longingly over a US-Mexican border wall. Eye catching it certainly is, if anyone is strolling by these days.

Arturo Galasino and ‘JR’, photo Ela Bialkowska

There is a difference here in emphasis, and style too, if not the obvious ambition. Banksy, the arch ironist of the Art world in paint, and all the money and pretention involved, remains more or less anonymous and engages in a kind of independent, commando creativity. ‘JR’ is a pseudonym, yet much more is known of the high profile French artist, who has a photo of himself climbing the Strozzi, found a major role at the Rio Olympics and back in 2011 won the $100,000 Ted prize. Christo’s scope in gift wrapping something like Berlin’s Reichstag building was on a graver scale. ‘The Wound’ then comes from within the Italian Art world itself, seeming to expose or share the guts of the old, yet vaunted as a platform for brave new initiatives. Perhaps that is when you pause to ask if the new has become the establishment, or the medium the message, as the Museum world tries to reinvent itself, online or off.

Italy is often accused of being stuck in the past artistically, if quite a past to be stuck in. ‘The Wound’ certainly takes its place in a growing tradition of contemporary Art taking back the streets and the palaces of Culture, or at least appearing to. In a Trompe L’Oeil effect centuries old, which took two months to create, using a team of 11 and a structure that had no impact on the building itself, ‘JR”s giant collage seems to tear open a hole in the Strozzi’s front, for any passerby, or arm chair art lover too. Especially meaningful in times of Lockdown, suggest the Strozzi. Thus apparently allowing us all free and vital access to such iconic works as Botticelli’s “Primavera” and “Birth of Venus”, or sculpturally Giambologna’s “The Abduction of the Sabine Women”. Along with part of an internal colonnade and Italy’s Library of Renaissance Studies. At least pointing our longing eyes in a very interesting direction, perhaps fortuitously too, with so many unable to travel, or buy museum tickets, let alone make safe border crossings.

GIANTS, Kikita and the border patrol, Kekate, Mexico. Unattributed

“Palazzo Strozzi is unique for its determination to forge a dialogue between the classic and the contemporary, through the involvement of artists capable of interpreting the present” says Strozzi Director General Arturo Galasino. Sponsored by the Italian businessman Andy Bianchedi, among others, and in “a long term collaboration”, you must ask about staging. Also if this carries the same intention, even authenticity, as noted iconoclasts, or, since ‘JR’ began on the Paris streets himself, the work of so many worldwide, from pavement artists to graffitists. ‘JR’ has protested against art as marketing, while Mr Bianchedi’s Milan based firm is involved with real estate, shares and yachting. Described by the Strozzi as a philanthropist too, he helped initiate the Future Art program, in part in honour of his late mother. Beautifully achieved meanwhile, ‘The Wound’ serves an exciting purpose in beginning the Strozzi’s new initiative, including an annual City commission. Also pointing to a series of virtual events, interactions and lectures, in that search for mid-Covid accessibility, as perhaps the entire world appears to have moved online.

In fact it is not the Pandemic that has refigured whatever Art or the Art world are, more the internet itself, post the days of Saatchi and Saatchi, and long involved in the very power of the image and photograph. While, perhaps protectively, the Strozzi reference the 18th century tradition of ‘Ruinism’, in the use of public buildings as wider metaphors by artists, in a long tradition. Not an especially new story then, like Art, marketing or money. Just as you might conclude from Banksy’s own copyright battles recently that iconoclasts have often become the establishment, while not only such large projects require the backing of real funds, public or private. These things often take a great deal of front too. When the performance and direct interaction driven artist Marina Obramovic appeared at the Strozzi, at the end of 2018, you could not lose yourself in the once healthy crowds without encountering her image on the back of Florentine a bus.

You might ask then if ‘The Wound’ is any cure for the virtual world, and the reach of accessible art, or a symptom of a global marketing disease, now literally reflected in the questions raised by a pandemic too. As everyone attempts to break out, or find a voice by going ‘viral’. Perhaps all has become the search for platforms, and ‘JR’ has a million followers on Instagram. It makes ‘The Wound’ no less imaginative, indeed poignant, as contemporary cultural and certainly very Italian metaphor. Interesting, and hopefully important too, in terms of the future works and artists it might inspire, find financial backing for too. Details of future commissions and projects are to be announced.

‘JR’ at the Louvre – Pyramide, architecte I.M Pei

Heralded by one French critic as the new Cartier-Bresson, in work often involving film makers too and in 2017 winning the Golden Eye at Cannes for best documentary, co-directed by Agnès Varda, ‘JR”s journeys have brought him a long way. He has staged shows in museums from San Francisco to Baden-Baden, Hong Kong to Brooklyn, and worked with the New York City ballet. He now has representation with the prominent Pace and Perrotin galleries, and Nara Roesler. In 2019 he had a rolling project in Italy with film maker Alice Rohrwacher, driven by a concern for farmers and the environment on the Alfina plateau, “Omelai Contadina”, picked up last year by Gallery Continua. ‘JR’ can be frank about setting out to make a splash long ago, yet describes how the TED award 10 years ago fueled his desire to “change the World”. When he made the Louvres’ hyper modern glass pyramid apparently vanish in 2016 it seemed he might like to change the world back in time, yet many projects have served a serious social purpose. Now you wonder what such a highly imaginative artist will do next.

28 Millimetres, Women are heroes, Rio. Unattributed

‘The Wound’ will run until 22 August, 2021

David Clement Davies is an author, journalist and artist – http://www.dcdsculpture.com

Visit the Strozzi at https://www.palazzostrozzi.org/

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