Most of your artworks take place outside of galleries and museums. What draws you to these kinds of projects?
In my work there is always the idea of reaching the most people. The DNA of my practice is making a piece that will – in the process of the piece – engage people at every level. That’s the art. The art is the process of making the final artwork.
How does the location – city, neighbourhood, street, building – inform the outcome?
I've worked in so many places around the world, and each time collaborating with local communities says a lot about how people in that place perceive art – or how they engage with it.
To me, there are no boundaries in where to work. That's literally what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to work in every place, even in places where you ask “does art makes sense there?” I always try and go, even if others tell me not to, and so far I haven't found a place where the people I meet tell me that it’s not the place for art.
Often we underestimate the power of art. People start because it's fun and then slowly they start seeing how it reflects on their community, how it reflects outside of their community and how the world looks back at them. That's what I've been working on for the last 20 years.
At what stage do physical parameters come into play?
The idea of size is always linked to the architecture of the city. I’m interested in the demographics of a neighbourhood, but also the topography of its buildings. What might be big in Paris might look very small in New York. It's all a matter of proportion. At the same time, I always try to play with the architecture. When I wrap buildings I paste over window details, for example. There are no boundaries for the paper.
With the giant sculptures I’m having even more fun. Suddenly, there are no more questions of walls. The whole city is a landscape.
Do you work with models before embarking on the real thing?
Usually we start with a little mock up in Photoshop, and often that takes us all the way to the end of the process. Sometimes we need a 3D model to understand the complexity. At other times, we just go ahead and fine-tune on the spot.
When you install an artwork there’s always a little part that doesn’t work. We ‘Photoshop’ this in real life, adding a bit of grey, black or white. That's why there’s so much texture in my work. It’s about the wrinkles of the paper and the texture of the wall as well as the photograph itself. Even in the calculations for some of the most important monuments that have been built, there's always an inch out here and there. When we paste, however precise, we have to correct for that.
What about scaffolding? It seems to be as much a medium as a tool for you now.
Scaffolding has been a part of the process for a long time. I started off using garbage in the street as ladders. Back when I was doing graffiti, I would grab garbage here and there and climb on it to tag. Then I’d use ladders, then little scaffolding, then bigger scaffolding and eventually scaffolding big enough to cover entire buildings. At some point I realised wow, what an incredible material to actually make sculptures in the city.
Now that the scaffolding itself is part of the work, I want the images to be see through so you can see it behind them. Recently we installed one in Hong Kong that was made from bamboo. When I made Kikito at the Mexico-US border there was no way we could actually touch the wall, so scaffolding was the perfect thing. We built a giant structure that was three times the size of the wall. It feels like I’m only just tapping into the possibilities of the material.
What challenges have you encountered as your artworks get bigger?
With scaffolding we have to use a lot of paths that come from construction. When we built on the roof in Rio, we had to reinforce the building over five floors. It had to withstand the pressure of the wind coming from the ocean. It was suddenly a giant construction site.
The thing with my work is, when you look at a piece it's impossible for me to do it by myself. Everything is done with my studio, with teams – sometimes with engineers. The more we progress with making new artworks, the more complexity we create.
I'm curious about trying things that seem impossible, things that I have no idea how to do. So we go and we look and we dream, and sometimes we have to correct the dream, but it's really that idea of how far can you go, and how many people can you involve that know better than you.
I’m sure many artists working at scale encounter similar obstacles, but they're often obscured by the idea of a singular artistic vision.
Yes, and we’re not trying to hide it.
You see the structures going through the building. You see how deep the scaffolding is, how high it goes. There was a base jumper who jumped from the top of [the sculpture] illegally. He said that until then the building wasn’t high enough, but because I added 20 metres to it, he could fly above Rio. You don't always realise before it happens, but because you're changing a part of the landscape, new possibilities are opened.
Tell us a bit more about your first set of Giants in Rio?
Brazil was already a big part of my work. In 2008 we did Women are Heroes across the hill of Morro da Providência – pasting the eyes of the women from the community onto the favela’s buildings. I've been going back there for 20 years now.
When the Olympics were coming in 2016 I was thinking about what I could do that would be so different from the things I’d already done. How could I reinvent myself in the city? The Olympic Games are such massive events, with so many people involved, but I wanted to do something that represents all of those that are forgotten and left behind – all the people that dream of one day making it there, that come from places that don’t always have access, or just didn't quite make it that year.
It was the first time I used scaffolding at that scale to bring the artworks over the city. I started by scouting, driving around – that building looks cool, that location would be great. There was no big idea. From there we started working on “ok, how do we actually make this happen?” And I never thought it would happen, to be honest. There were so many things to come together, so many constraints. Engineers were afraid to sign on the project, and we were building at the moment where everybody needed scaffolding to finish the infrastructure for the Olympics. But those are the projects that suddenly push the limits. We went all the way, and it was extraordinary.
The whole summer it lasted, two or three months. Then in September there was a huge storm and small parts of the images started flying away, which is always part of my work – the ephemerality. In this case everything was really well strapped, so the scaffolding didn't move, but the images started slowly taking off and that was the point that we had to remove them.
Of all the apartment buildings in Rio, why that one?
The building is facing the ocean. In front there’s a fast road where people connect to the whole city and you also can walk down by the water, so it was a great place to look at art. At the time the building was already abandoned, covered in graffiti. That's why it was possible for us to add five floors of scaffolding to reinforce it, and I think that element also added something to it – there was no one there, and yet it was right in the centre of town.
I’m always looking for the final image. Not just the building, but its context. What do you see around it? The photo for me is important, of course, but also the way that people actually experience the artwork in the time that it's there.
How do you reflect on the project now?
During the Olympics, because they was not labelled – there were no logos, names, just the images – they stood out. At the same time, for me, the works were so different from all the work that I had done before in Brazil. It was a big step into what's possible.
The obvious choice for your Giants might have been athletes who had travelled to Rio to compete. What prompted you to look elsewhere?
The idea was to use people whose dream was to one day be a part of the Olympics. I went all over Europe to find them – athletes who were working hard, but might not make it.
Then I had to go and photograph them. Photography of sport, which was something I’d never done. I had to approach it in such a precise way because the images needed to connect with the outcome. If a hand was a little bit this way or that, it would change the entire structure. I was amazed to see how precise the athletes were. Not only are they making this incredible effort, they can place their hands and feet in the perfect position too.
Our collaboration is based on your portrait of Mohamed Younes Idris. What are your memories of meeting him?
I travelled to Germany to meet Mohamed, where he was training. At the time he already knew that he didn't make it to the Olympics, but his rage and desire to get at a high level, which he already was of course, was huge.
I don't think he really realised how big he would be right in the middle of the Olympics. We stayed in touch, and each time he sees the artwork published somewhere he writes to me. It's an image that will follow him all his life, and me too – one of those beautiful encounters with someone I would never have met.
Did you have a prior connection to the Olympics?
I don't think I had a direct connection with the Olympics before, really, but they were happening in a city that's so dear to me and the correlation between them approaching me and the city being open for me to do something. I thought, why not. Let's try something really big.
Does an outsider's perspective help?
In my projects there’s always the fact that I go into a place and discover a whole new world. There’s a part of me that's so naïve that I can just jump in, and it keeps me fresh. I love researching a lot while I'm doing the project, but not too much in advance.
I want the people, the community, to explain things to me from their own point of view rather than me coming in thinking I know anything about it. That's always been my approach. I was so young, 18 or 19, when I started doing my first projects, and I've always done it this way. I hope I'll manage to protect that part of me that walks into things with an open mind – or naïvety, whatever you want to call it – but at the same time with the the intention of of making and creating something that will engage the community, and to which the community will respond.
It seems to be working.
You talk a lot about human potential, and Olympic athletes feel like an archetypal example. What does it mean to place them in the middle of a city for everyone to see?
Each time I install a work in the city, it's a black and white image but there's no signature. There's not even any information about it. You can be on your way to work and have no idea who it is or why it's there, but never question yourself. Or you can pass by and wonder “what is this?” and if you look, if you search, you'll find the answer pretty easily.
I always put the material online, but it still requires that step from the audience, which I think is essential. It’s the difference between art and advertising. Advertising needs you to understand what it's trying to get to you do, or what it's pushing you to buy. It's written on it. It has a direct message. Art is supposed to raise questions not bring answers, and that’s where I'm always trying to stay.
When you go to a museum you go to look at art. That's the purpose. When you’re in the street, you're going somewhere. You're not necessarily there to search for art, so there’s a chance to take people by surprise.
In galleries I often find myself reading the wall texts before I look at the art, but that's not an option here.
Since Rio you've taken your Giants worldwide with a variety of subjects. What ties them together?
I didn’t expect it, but suddenly these figures became the DNA of my work. There's always been this idea of taking anonymous people and enlarging them to be bigger than life. Simply the fact that you’re walking in the street and you don't know who that person is raises so many questions. How do we celebrate everyday heroes, the people that surround us?
The kid Kikito looking over the border from Mexico is a year and a half old. He doesn’t know what that wall is for. He's just looking over this wall because it's right in front of his house. Each project raises different questions at different levels.
How did you land on a miniature version of Mohamed for our first collaboration?
When we started talking about making a piece with Avant Arte I was set on doing something I've never done before. How can I represent one of my installations, but as a sculpture? The scaffolding piece was the most obvious maybe, but not the easiest. We’ve worked for the last two years to get it right.
The jumper is in your library – on one of your shelves, or on its box – and wherever you put him suddenly becomes the building, or the city. There's a very realistic element to it. The structure, the transparency. It’s faithful to the installation and what it looked like in Rio.
Except that rather than passing him on the way to work, you're on the way to the kitchen?
Yes! On your way to make coffee you'll pass in front of him. Will it still have the same effect? It’s new for me. Wherever it goes you are still wondering “how is this guy jumping off from there?” – but the structure is there behind him. That was the beauty of when we did it in Rio too. The magical element is revealed, and yet it's still magical.
A moment of weightlessness held up by something so obviously structural – it feels quite surreal, at any scale.
It's a surreal object because it's taking photography into three dimensions. Instead of just looking at an image documenting the installation you're seeing it in real life. The light is going to affect it, depending on where the sun comes from. It will play with your surroundings.
This piece comes as a reminder that as a collector you're part of that whole adventure. The artwork lives within you, within your space, and starts a whole new journey there. For me it's an amazing new road. Limited edition artworks help finance my public projects, I don't use money from brands for that, but I don’t make so many and they’ve always been prints.
Looking around the room, there’s a lot of archival material. Documenting your artworks must be a vital part of your practice?
All of my works are ephemeral in the outside world, and the parts that people collect are what stays. The stories will be told because of those objects – those prints, those books, those images. If you go back to Rio it's not there, yet it's in people's minds and for the ones who haven't seen it, here is the proof that it at some point existed.
And that’s the case for anyone who makes art like this. Each time I pass in front of the Arc de Triomphe I still see Christo. I still see the fact that he once wrapped it up, and I saw it with my own eyes.
GIANTS, High jump in Rio
Seven years on from his emblematic Olympic installation, our first collaboration with JR archives a point of inflection for the scale and impact of his artworks. The first-of-its-kind edition opens new possibilities for the archival practice of an artist famed for ephemeral interventions in public space. Long since removed from its rooftop perch in Rio, in the artist's own words, "here is the proof that it at some point existed."
Director, camera: Axell Katomba
Second camera, sound: Elias Wallach
Editor: William Widnell
Archival content: Courtesy of JR