by Gautam Sen, Avik ChattopadhyayJan 13, 2021
For the 13th Havana Biennial, French photographer and street artist, Jean René, popularly known as JR, was invited by Galleria Continua to create a work on the outside wall of the gallery. The artist chose Alain, a little boy, as the protagonist of his new Giants project. Alain lives in Havana’s Chinatown and plays every day at the foot of the former cinema Águila de Oro, the building that houses Galleria Continua, where JR spotted him and was instantly inspired by his curious attitude.
Galleria Continua’s ‘XXL Online’ programme relaunched the entire 2019 experience with an ongoing presentation of some of their artists’ biggest projects. It is a comprehensive experience in understanding large installations and artworks. “To keep the relationship with collectors and our audience alive, we have enhanced our social and digital initiatives and we have inaugurated a rich schedule of online events that we communicate with periodic newsletters: various viewing rooms enrich the wealth of information and images of works already available on the site,” says the team consisting of Mario Cristiani, Lorenzo Fiaschi and Maurizio Rigillo, who founded the gallery in 1990. Occupying a former cinema, Galleria Continua established itself and thrived in an entirely unexpected location in San Gemignani – a small Italian hill town steeped in history and timeless magnificence.
“Continua XXL Online is an initiative that celebrates the large-scale works and installations that the artists of Galleria Continua have conceived for our large spaces or for special events and is always accompanied by an ad hoc explanation of the work by the artist; so far we have presented installations by Jean René, Antony Gormley, Zhanna Kadyrova and Sun Yuan and Peng Yu,” they add.
The fourth edition of ‘Continua XXL Online’ presents JR and his work Giants, Peeking At The City, Havana, Cuba, a huge paste up of Alain, who lives in Havana and who met the artist by chance when they were looking at the location for an eventual work to be pasted on the outside wall of Arte Continua. It incorporates many different perspectives, that of a little boy who plays every day in the square of the neighbourhood as well as that of the city as a whole.
“The boy is “peeking” out over the city and towards the sea, the horizon and far-away lands, demonstrating the position of Havana in Cuba as an island nation, separated from the rest of the world yet open to new influences and outlooks,” says the artist JR, who met the boy and his parents, asking him to get involved in the project and pose by standing on his tiptoes for the artist’s photograph upon which the larger than life paste-on installation/collage is based.
“I wanted someone who looks at the city,” he adds, indicating that the gaze of his subject is something he encountered while setting up with his team on the rooftop of the building overlooking this large slightly dilapidated yellow wall. “It is a call to continue beyond the wall, and go beyond the wall”. This installation gives the child’s peeking over the wall another dimension: while making visible the invisible, it directs our look towards new perspectives.
JR was born in France in 1983, and as an artist-photographer who exhibits freely in the streets, communities and public spaces of the world, he captures the attention of people who are not typical museum visitors. His work mixes ‘art and action’; it tackles themes such as commitment, freedom, community and identity. Previously he was working on a trompe-l’oeil of the Louvre pyramid in France.
This is not JR’s first time working in Havana. He has also pasted portraits of old Cuban people in the streets of Havana for the Wrinkles of the City project. His artistic adventure in Cuba does not stop there. Before the corona lockdown occurred, the street artist prepared a large fresco of Cuban inhabitants, like the one made in Montfermeil (Seine Saint Denis). JR is awaiting a chance to display at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and San Francisco, while he had already presented the project at the SF MoMa.
His other significant projects have been The Chronicles of New York, a 53-foot-high mural that depicts over 1,000 New Yorkers, installed on stacked shipping containers in Williamsburg’s Domino Park. The black and white mural is JR’s biggest public project to date in the city. JR also initiated a massive global participatory art project to commemorate the 30-year anniversary of the Walk for Equality in Lyon, France, a 500-mile walk protesting police violence and inequality.
“Those who love art cannot give up sharing it in order to make it come alive, but the whole art world will have to rethink and reorganise its work on the basis of social distancing that will make it difficult to be social like before the pandemic. Let's hope that, as has happened several times in the past, a worldwide upheaval like this can generate a strong reaction impulse in humans that will allow them to rebuild a new society and a new way of being,” observes Cristiani. “The ability to recreate a general and lasting sense of well-being will depend on us and from our desire to start again and to rethink ourselves as a community and as individuals. In this, art could play a central role, reinstating its value and meaning,” concludes Fiaschi and Rigillo.
Online viewing room can be accessed here.