French artist JR takes fight against branding to streets of Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2012, 3:24am

French street artist JR has only been in town for a matter of days, but he's already establishing himself as, in his words, an "enemy" of the city. That's not because the 29-year-old is acting against the Hong Kong people, though: his target is the city's ubiquitous brands.

"In the street, we are enemies; it's you against me," he said yesterday at the 17th floor Galerie Perrotin in Central, which offers a perfect view of his latest outdoor exhibit. "The brands are the only ones I'm competing with when I'm in the street. Who's going to take the spot first? Who's going to paste here first?"

JR has won this round of the contest with a jaw-dropping outdoor show featuring 16 black and white portraits of Hongkongers.

The photos have been pasted on the roof of a walkway along Connaught Road in Central.

The purpose is to allow local residents to show the true face of their city to the world as a means of challenging stereotypes.

Through his global art project, Inside Out, he wants to change the way Hongkongers think about their city, one that is bursting with images promoting brands, from luxury watches and jewellery to everyday items.

And because his art is about images in public spaces, he sees brands as his main competitor. For JR, the battle is just beginning.

"The outdoor show is a sparkle to start," he said.

"I had heard about the passerelles [walkways] between buildings because you have many of them in Hong Kong and the portraits are of people looking up [rather than looking sideways as in other cities] so it's Inside Out adapted to Hong Kong," he said.

The photos were taken last month when 175 people turned up to the gallery to get their portraits done, just a day after the event was announced.

JR's project started 18 months ago after he scooped a US$100,000 prize from TED, a non-profit US-based organisation devoted to spreading ideas under the banner of technology, entertainment and design.

Since then, JR's team in New York has printed more than 100,000 posters of ordinary people and sent them to participants in more than 100 countries.

The gallery is showing other works by JR until November and is also hosting a purpose-built photo booth where visitors can print large posters of themselves.

Gallery manager Christin Lam said the government gave approval for the outdoor show just last week after two months of negotiations.

"A lot of people were sceptical and we were holding our breath for the whole time," she said.

"Hong Kong is such a financial and international hub, but we are missing some art."