The Artist JR Lifts a Mexican Child Over the Border Wall

Mexico art The Artist JR Lifts a Mexican Child Over the Border Wall

Mexico Art

The French artist JR is a magician who conjures people onto walls. His method is simple: he travels the world in his “Inside Out” photo-booth truck, taking people’s portraits, which he then pastes onto the sides of buildings. The effect is stunning, sublime. JR has sent a seventy-five-foot-tall ballerina soaring over Tribeca in her tutu, and inscribed the wrinkled faces of two dozen old cubans onto the flaking, cracked walls of Havana. As Raffi Khatchadourian noted in his Profile of the artist, from 2011, JR is often drawn to places whose residents’ humanity and individuality are habitually ignored or subsumed in political rhetoric: Tunisia, Iran, Palestine, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The work is temporary by design; most of the walls on which he pastes his images will long outlast them, just as they will outlast the people who live within and walk by. The point is to bear witness, to mark the spot of a life with dignity, humor, and grace.

See more

Last week, JR installed a new work in the Mexican city of Tecate, an hour southeast of San Diego: a monumental photograph of Kikito, a smiling toddler, pasted onto a special scaffolding placed just behind the border fence with California. Seen from the American side, the child seems to be peering over the slatted fence as if from inside a crib, getting ready to crawl toward something that’s caught his interest. JR announced the work, last Wednesday, by posting a picture to his Instagram account of a million followers, showing two uniformed Border Patrol officers looking up at the image of Kikito from Californian soil as the installation was taking place. He has since updated his Instagram profile to include a Google Maps pin to the work’s exact location, so that people can visit it. Many have already made the pilgrimage. On Saturday, I spoke to him over the phone about how he made the piece, and what he was thinking about as he did. This interview has been edited and condensed.

“Each time I’ve seen walls that have caught my attention, or that I’ve heard about a lot in the media, they would stick in my mind. I would even dream about it. When Trump started to talk a lot about a wall along the Mexican border, one day I woke up and I saw a kid looking over the wall. I was wondering, What is this kid thinking? What would any kid think? We know that a one-year-old doesn’t have a political vision, or any political point of view. He doesn’t see walls as we see them.

“I started scouting the border five months ago. A friend of mine, Pedro Alonzo, who’s a curator I’ve worked with in many museums, said, ‘Let’s go to Tecate and we’ll drive to Tijuana.’ When we got there, we started asking people, ‘Do you know how we can get closer to the fence, on this or that street?’ At the first house, we just knocked on the door, it was really close to the fence. There was a woman and her daughter and a little kid, and they said, ‘Please, come in, come in!’ The daughter said, ‘Oh, I recognize you from Facebook!’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ We sat down. I showed her some pictures, and she said, ‘Yes, that’s what I saw.’ The whole time we talked, the kid was looking out at us from his crib.

“We left and started driving, following the border. It becomes a double border, with two fences. There’s a kind of no man’s land in between; when you get closer to Tijuana, it looks much more impressive. If you go thirty minutes in the other way, it’s no more walls at all. Before we got to Tijuana, I said, ‘Stop the car—let’s go back. That kid that kept looking at me the whole time. That’s the kid. He looks like the kid of my dream. Let’s go and ask the mother.’

“So we went back. I didn’t even have a rendering of how it would look, except an old one I’d made using an image of an adult man. I said, ‘I think it would be much more powerful with your kid. He lives here, he overlooks the wall every day, but he doesn’t know what it is.’ She said, ‘Look, you can take the photo, you’ll show me, and then we’ll decide.’ So I took the photo, and we left and scouted Tijuana. We went all the way to where the fence goes in the water. But the best location I found was the one close to their house, almost on the same block. There was this piece of land, a water tank, nothing there. And on the other side, the US side, the road was close to the wall, which is not always the case.

“I did a rendering in my studio in Paris, and then we went back to see the mother again. She approved it. She said, ‘I hope this will help people see us differently than what they hear in the media, that they will stop taking us like criminals or rapists.’ I could feel—wow. It was very strong from her. She told me, ‘I hope in that image they won’t only see my kid. They will see us all.’

“Then we started thinking, How do we do it, who do we ask? In these cases, I prefer to just not ask anybody. It’s always been my way of functioning. I wait until the last minute, and if there’s any trouble we try to make it work, or just abandon the project. For me, when there’s more chance of failure than success, it’s a good combination for a project. It’s a real chance to do something that hasn’t been done.

“On the US side, they don’t really have jurisdiction to say what should happen on the other side. The piece is three times higher than the wall and we didn’t know what the law was about getting that close to the fence. At some point, Pedro, the curator, decided to let Border Patrol know, but we didn’t ask them any permission, or anything. On the other side, we didn’t have the full permission, but the city said it would not be an inconvenience for us to install it. It’s always like that. I’ve been in these cases before where no one will take responsibility, but they’re not going to stop you. I just go for it. That’s enough for me.

“We came back over the summer. To build the scaffolding, we had to dig an entire hole to level the ground. It’s gigantic—you can’t see when you look at the piece, but when you look behind it, it’s as tall as it is deep. And then we built wood panels all around the way. And that’s what took the longest. Pasting it we did it in one day.

“It will be up till the second of October. I put the pin location on my Instagram and the link in my bio so that people can drive there. I’m starting to see photos of people that have driven from LA and San Diego. There were quite a lot of people on the Mexican side, too.

“What’s interesting is that, at first, I only posted that one photo of the two Border Patrol guards looking at the image. I just wrote, ‘Work in progress,’ thinking that the next day I would tell more of the story. And that image went around the world and back. I realized no words were needed. And of the thousands of comments that came on Instagram, nobody talked about DACA Gold Trump. It didn’t bring a political conversation, but a human conversation. ‘What is this kid thinking?’ It was really just a love message. No hate debate. I thought that was amazing, because when you’re working in a political conflict zone like that it’s always tricky. For me, the whole work is also a sociological approach of observing reactions of people from different places. That’s as important as the piece.

“What I’m hoping the most is not only that people will see the photo but that they’ll decide to go there by themselves. They’ll talk to Border Patrol, they’ll talk to people on the other side who they can see through the fence. That experience is intimate to each person who will see the piece. I won’t even hear about it.”

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.