As correctional facilities, prisons stand at the core of contemporary society as a reminder that any form of illegal activity prescribed by the state will be rightfully condemned and processed. However, various scholars urge for a wider reconsideration of the very concept in the sense of social inclusion and reconciliation.
Artists have often been hesitant to explore this subject matter, but the ones more daring and socially engaged are not. Such is the case with the established French artist JR, best known for his large scale public works, who closely explored the maximum-security prison located in Tehachapi, California.
The whole project is currently displayed at Perrotin in Paris and it shows how far the artist went while questioning whether art can be a vehicle for social change.
In October 2019, JR was granted a visit to the Tehachapi prison where he intended to meet the prisoners and present his idea that ultimately should be developed in the central yard. Some of the incarcerated men were locked up for almost a decade, many of them sentenced to life. According to California’s Three Strikes law, any person convicted of three crimes had to serve twenty-five years to life as long as two of the three crimes were considered serious. However, a great majority of inmates sentenced under the mentioned law are today serving for nonviolent crimes.
JR photographed the men, one by one, from above, and they shared their story in front of a camera without any particular instruction. The artist also captured the prison staff and former prisoners and collected in total forty-eight portraits and stories.
After two weeks, JR got back to the prison with his team to install three hundred and thirty-eight strips of paper to the ground. In just a few hours, the prison yard collage was finished. The installation disappeared after three days under the footsteps of the prisoners and staff.
In February 2020, JR returned once again to the prison, and inspired by the Tehachapi Mountains, located in front of the complex, he produced a large scale installation with the help of the volunteers including the prison’s incarcerated population. This work remains on display today.
A few years ago I started a journey called “Can Art Change the World?” It is still an open question. And with this project, I want to raise another question: “Can a man change?” Before answering yes or no, ask yourself a question: Have I changed? Did I make mistakes, apologize and amend for them? And if I haven’t, why haven’t I been able to?”
The current exhibition shows the significance of art in the prison system that can be used as an emancipatory tool for building collaboration and solidarity. That is proven by the fact that after the project ended several inmates initiated a working group to begin art classes, while JR stayed in touch with his collaborators. For the sake of the long-term goals of the project that is even accessible online via the Tehachapi free app for iPhone and Android titled JR: Murals.
JR: Tehachapi will be on display at Perrotin in Paris until 26 September 2020.
Featured images: Installation views, JR Tehachapi, Perrotin Paris. © JR. Photo Claire Dorn. Courtesy Perrotin.