Our faces, our places: memory, self, and community reflected in Agnes Varda and JR’s "Faces Places"
“Art is supposed to surprise us, right?” - Salt factory worker
At first, they are an odd pair: Agnes Varda, 89 years old, a prolific filmmaker and “grandmother” of the French New Wave movement of the 1950s and 60s; and JR, a young, semi-anonymous graffiti artist and photographer whose career is only just getting started. But what makes these two unlike is what also draws them to each other. Agnes’s blindness meets a match in JR’s constant dark sunglasses; her reflections on life, looking back, meet JR’s reaching hopes for the future. And in Faces Places, their co-directed documentary-slash-road movie, the art they create becomes a totem that bravely, and optimistically, reflects the memories and hopes of the people whose photographs they take.
Agnes and JR travel not just across France, but through time, looking at youth through aging eyes, and confronting the past through the immediacy of interaction with public art. In JR’s truck disguised as a camera (which is also a photo booth and printer on wheels), the pair drive to an old mining town, fishing and tourism-reliant villages, farms, and factories; they meet with the people, and paste images of their faces (or, in one case, their goat’s) on often crumbling surfaces.
JR, or at least the black and white images in Faces Places, may seem familiar. Faces of Dudley, a collaboration between Now + There, Cedric Douglas’s UP Truck, and JR’s Inside Out Project, lit up Dudley Square in a similar way in October 2015. Faces of Dudley captured a neighborhood that’s struggling with the creep of gentrification, with crime, and with a lack of resources. Problems that some other residents here in Boston don’t face. The project was for and of the community, for its residents to see themselves, their hopes and their truths. Faces Places speaks to this same issue at times, but Agnes and JR maintain a distance throughout—because of her age and failing eyesight, because of the artists’ transience, and also to pointedly observe the reactions and interactions between their subjects-cum-audience.
Public art is a mechanism that connects individuals with their—our—place and time in the world. In scenes at two worksite “villages” – the dock, home to a historically powerful leftist union, and a salt processing factory – the workers stare at the photos JR and Agnes made in wonderment. “It shows we can all get along,” says a factory worker.” “Pride doesn’t describe it,” says a dock worker, whose wife’s image is pasted six shipping containers high, not outsized, but illustrating how much of a role she plays in his life. “Everyone got so involved.”
For those of us who’ve worked on a public art project, or any civil project in the US, we know how difficult it can be. Getting funding is a struggle. The logistics are endless. And then: will anyone show up? France appears to be different. A farmer offers his lift to wheatpaste, well, his own visage on his barn. A man on the street provides a parasol, a prop for one photo, and then teaches us how he rings the ancient church bells while the townspeople gather below to snap selfies with the black and white image of a local waitress—with parasol—pasted the height of a building.
These scenes are charming, and somewhat of a relief, but it is hard to imagine that an 89 year old woman traveled across France with nary a flat tire or rainy day. Still, the film does turn even disappointments into art—high tide sweeps away a photograph of an old friend of Agnes, crouched into the corner of an old Nazi bunker that is slowly washing itself into the sea, and the artists shrug; well, life is ephemeral like that.
And yet, images still have the power to “reinhabit” a place, as Agnes and JR learn when they visit a half-built and abandoned village, Pirou-Plage. Nearby residents are invited for a picnic at a cluster of roofless cement structures; they have their portraits taken, cut out their own heads, and paste them onto the buildings. Everyone seems happy, as if the town that never was has fulfilled a secret potential.
“It all depends on how one sees things.” - Agnes Varda
Francois Truffaut, a colleague of Agnes Varda in the New Wave film movement, famously said, “I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.” Agnes says something similar in the film, while people point their phones at the images, mediating the art they’re hungry to experience. Throughout Faces Places, the villagers’ pasts and interconnected identities are reflected and reimagined right in front of them, through Agnes’s art direction and JR’s giant photo truck. A woman who refuses to move from the home she grew up in, in an old mining town, becomes a hero of the resistance when her face is plastered across her front door. A goat with horns is a symbol of freedom and wildness. And a shy waitress, or at least her image, becomes a viral Internet sensation.
Faces Places shows how public art can be a practice to bring forth and publicly declare our relationships with each other, ourselves, and our memories. In 90 minutes, we only get a glimpse of the lives of JR, Agnes, and the people they encounter, and so the film can only reflect the experience of participating—of being in a place where art is being created, where we are all invited to contribute, no matter how young, old, or able.
Images copyright Cohen Media Group.