JR, street artist in Groningen….and the frustrations of the art teacher

Every art teacher has had this experience I think.  You visit a museum or art gallery and find yourself wishing you could take your pupils to see this particular exhibition. 

Today was one such occasion for me. The artist involved was the French street artist JR and the place was Groningen in the far north of the Netherlands. It’s a two and a half hour trip on the train for me to get there, and if I was traveling from the school where I work it would be more than three hours. With such a time frame, a school visit, no matter how appropriate the exhibition isn’t going to happen.

In the case of the JR exhibition the ‘you just must see the real thing’ sort of recommendation isn’t really relevant. The exhibition doesn’t actually have the ‘real’ artworks. They are out on the streets in cities around the world interacting with the contexts and locations in which they are placed. In JR’s case the work is often on a huge scale and in places with serious political or social tensions. What we see in Groningen is documentation and museum installations that help give a feel for the scale of the work and includes supporting films that document and interview the participants involved. Together, multiple narratives are presented, the life and development of an artist, and the aims an objectives of each individual project.

When seen as a whole, this large scale presentation of the Frenchman’s work, has an effect that I know would have been so interesting to show my pupils. We’ve recently been talking a lot about street art and in doing so have also looked at JR’s large scale photographic work. Whilst in class at school, we have so many possibilities to look at art, a large lcd screen at the front of the class for images and films and pupils have their own computer screens to carry out further web-based investigations. But a walk into a museum, even if it is only to see this sort of documentation does bring other benefits and a chance to reflect and discuss in different ways than in class.

As I said at the beginning, we won’t be going to Groningen.  Maybe I’ll share someone the photographs I took today with my classes.  But there will be other museum visits at other times that are more feasible. It is crucial to those of us in education to continue making such visits when we can, to give a non-screen based experience of art and culture to our pupils.

 

 

Visages Villages (Faces Places) – a film review….and educational possibilities

Agnes Varda film maker and JR the French photographer and installation artist make an unlikely couple. One is an 89 woman who originally made her name as a filmmaker during the French New Wave, the other a 34-year-old photographer/installation-maker with a well-established name in both the world of street art and the more conventional art circuit.

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But in the film Visages Villages or Faces Places if you prefer the English title, a couple they certainly are, travelling around the French countryside in their van that is dressed up to look like a giant camera.  They visit a variety of places discussing, bickering and interviewing before getting down to the business of creating and installing a series of artworks using JR’s preferred installation method of pasting often huge scale photographs on exterior walls, sea-containers, trains and even a disused and crumbling relic from the second world war.

The film presents a fascinating insight into the working process.  JR largely takes the lead, but the constant input from Varda deflects and contributes to the creative development.  She brings the perspective of a long life, creative insight and a certain historical perspective that clearly fits well with the younger artist’s own interests.

The passage through the film builds a heart-warming picture of what seems to start with as a rather unlikely friendship.  There is a certain about of teasing that goes on between the two, but also a tremendous amount of respect and warmth as they discuss their work, their lives and their differences.

Technically the film is a documentary and has seen as that when it has won various film festival awards.  But it is also very much a road movie as we travel along with the leading characters on their journey of discovery.

As an educator I think that there is a good chance that I will be showing my older pupils this film in the future.  It gives a revealing view into the artistic process.  My pupils are interested in street art and the way it intervenes into the world around us.  Perhaps slightly unusually for this sort of public space work though, these are images that often provide us with a subject, an ordinary person, to look at and think about.  JR and Varda often choose the humdrum, the ordinary person and the elevate them to often quite huge scales.  Yes, I feel sure that this film and JR’s other work can be an interesting route to explore with my pupils.

There is also no doubt at all that I see possible practical assignments that may be possible to challenge my pupils with.  Certainly, photographic installations that we could make virtually on the computer, but who knows, maybe a few real installations could follow.

Related JR links:

JR Photographer

JR street artist

Previous street art related blog posts:

Street art and illegality

Street art in the classroom