In a recent talk in the first floor gallery of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, docent Jessica Chen asked visitors if they appeared in the work being discussed.
It wasn’t that odd a question: “JR: The Chronicles of San Francisco” is a truly mesmerizing portrait of more than 1,200 participants in a major photography (and more) project by renowned yet mysterious French street artist JR.
“He wears glasses. No one knows what he really looks like,” said Chen, who added that the artist has said, “Most of my work is illegal. I’ve been arrested in many countries.”
However, his warm and thoughtful San Francisco piece, taking up the whole gallery and on view for free through May, was commissioned by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who’s among the 1,206 people pictured; he’s holding a sign that says “Equal pay for equal work.”
JR himself also is in it, twice, as is late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, whose face is on the front of a newspaper.
“It’s basically a really long mural that depicts the entire population of San Francisco from the richest to the poorest,” JR says in a video on SFMOMA’s website, also mentioning that it includes people of every religion and from every neighborhood in The City.
He began work on it in 2018, inviting people into his trailer, where he set up a photo studio. He captured their moving and still images on a green screen and asked them to talk about themselves. In the course of a month, he moved the trailer to 22 places.
He compiled the material into the black-and-white digital mural, which compellingly scrolls across 17-foot tall screens lining the gallery walls on an hour-long loop. The audio can be heard on headphones at listening stations in the center of the gallery; visitors simply tap on images on a console to listen to people telling their varied stories.
Chen pointed out that many scenes in “Chronicles of San Francisco” are staged, and some aspects — including a newspaper stand and an image of Frida Kahlo — pay homage to Diego Rivera’s murals on Coit Tower in The City, an inspiration for JR.
There’s also homelessness, death and the beginning of life. A woman on a gurney, attended by an obstetrician, nurse and midwife, is pictured with a newborn baby in one scene.
There’s a twirling ballerina, swimmers in bathing caps, and even a horse dressed up as a unicorn.
All of the people are about the same size, to indicate that no one person is more important than other, Chen said.
JR — whose famed political works include a large photograph of a child’s face peering over the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, and huge portraits of Palestinian and Israeli people’s faces, lined up side-by-side on a wall and both in Israel and Palestine — says of his Bay Area project, “I’ve never had a better sense, or better vision, of San Francisco.”
IF YOU GO
JR: The Chronicles of San Francisco
Where: Roberts Family Gallery, first floor, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F. (enter on Howard Street)
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays and to 9 p.m. Thursdays); through May 31
Contact: (415) 357-4000, sfmoma.org