Contemporary Art

How 3 Nuns Helped Artist-Activist JR Bridge a Political Divide

By Sotheby's

In advance of the upcoming auction Creating a Stage: The Collection of Marsha & Robin Williams on 4 October, we spoke with artist internationally renowned artist JR about his acclaimed projects Inside Out and Face 2 Face, keeping his true identity a secret and an early piece of his that made it into the Williams’ collection.

Marsha and Robin Williams bought your work, 28 Millimètres: Face 2 Face, Nuns In Action, Separation Wall. Security Fence, Palestinian Side, Bethlehem', in 2011 at TED the year you were awarded the TED Prize. What did winning that award mean to you and for the exposure of your work?

When I won the Ted Prize it was an amazing moment to explain the links between each project and how each one has nourished the next. The one in the Middle East is one that happened locally in Israel and Palestine. The images help you understand people on both sides. The TED Prize was the most amazing way I could imagine to show people my work which is a process that transpires in locations around the world.

JR, '28 Millimètres: Face 2 Face, Nuns In Action, Separation Wall. Security Fence, Palestinian Side, Bethlehem''. Estimate $15,000–20,000.

This photograph is from your Face 2 Face project of 2007 – what can you tell us about this image in particular in which three nuns are pasting one of the photographs on a wall?

I remember when we were pasting it on the wall, on the Palestinian side and some nuns walked by – and the work is completely illegal – and they recognized Brother Jack! They wanted to know what we were doing and so we explained and they wanted to help. The projects create scenarios where things like that can happen.

When Robin Williams purchased this photograph, did you meet him?

I’ve never met him and that’s the amazing thing about the work’s journey. I’m happy to know that it’s being sold for charity. It’s one of my earliest photos – just in an edition of three. It’s a very unique piece, making a strong statement using humor. It's one of my really early works so I love that he had a piece like that.

Robin Williams, San Francisco, 1995

You used your Ted Prize winnings to fund Inside Out, a truly global project that involved more than 350,000 participants from 129 countries. What was it that made that work so universally received?

When I started the project it was about people expressing themselves. At first people thought it was me pasting all of those images, and now people have started to understand that people can take ownership of the work and they can paste it all over the world. So now it’s not even mine any more, it doesn’t belong to me.

You are famously anonymous, keeping your identity separate from the artworks that you create – is there a struggle in managing these elaborate and hands-on international projects while safeguarding your true identity?

You know recently on a project at the border of Mexico, it was the fact that I kept myself anonymous that allowed me to cross freely. It’s a part of my work. One day I hope that pasting images would be welcome, but until then I guess I will have to keep playing with that.

As many lives as you’ve touched and hardships you’ve encountered in your work and in your travels, do you consider yourself an optimist about humanity and our shared future?

Oh yeah, definitely. There are enough pessimists in the world, it’s not that original. As artists we need to stay optimistic. It is almost like our mission as artists so I try to stay optimistic when working on my projects.

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