French artist JR, in his first major San Francisco commission, has created a contemporary piece reflecting everyday San Francisco life that's moving, beautiful, and staggering on many levels.
Unveiled during Wednesday night's Art Bash and officially debuted to the public on Thursday, "The Chronicles of San Francisco" is the second such epic digital mural project undertaken by JR, who created something similar depicting the Paris suburb Les Bosquets, where he lived for many years. Inspired in part by the murals of Diego Rivera — whom SFMOMA's founding director Grace McCann Morley first brought to San Francisco for mural commissions in 1930 — JR decided to create a composite video image depicting the plurality of San Francisco, in all of its glory.
In this moment of general grumpiness and malaise, both locally and nationally, as writers from the East Coast continue to shit on our general situation and declare the city's soul lost, "The Chronicles of San Francisco" feels like some kind of balm, and an unexpected celebration of this place. It came out of interviews and photographs the artist took over two months, in January and February of 2018. JR used a trailer-sized mobile photographic studio at 22 different, pre-determined locations, and took still and video portraits of 1,200 people, primarily ordinary San Franciscans but also including local celebrities and dignitaries like Gov. Gavin Newsom, Cleve Jones, Warriors player Draymond Green, and local drag queen Donna Sachet. There are other drag queens and Sisters of Perpetual indulgence, as well as homeless people, doctors, firefighters, protesters, and more.
It's a joyous and stunning piece of art, first and foremost, and a powerful expression of the notions of collective consciousness, urban life, and the tensions and serendipities of crowded city life. It's sheer size and scale is also awesome and makes you want to stare for hours and watch it change. (The mural comes with several kiosks in the lobby where you can click on individuals and hear narration from their interviews.
The entire piece spans a curved, 100-foot-wide, 15-foot-tall, seamless set of LED screens, and it's a dizzying but electric composite of portraits that slides, slowly, from left to right in a reel. Included are a stage where the curtain comes up on multiple groups, including drag performers, and a garage that opens to reveal a group of senior citizen swimmers, magically floating through the air. At one point, smoke from a fire spills out of a Victorian, and you can see a prostrate homeless person being tended to by EMTs. Also the Castro Theatre marquee plays a central roll, as do several hilly streets.
It's an idealistic depiction of San Francisco in a particularly fraught moment for the city, culturally and otherwise — it's also, arguably, more diverse than the reality, given that city is reportedly only 5% African American these days. It's a movie-set depiction — Central Casting's best attempt to show us ourselves. But these are in fact real people who live and work here, so no matter how curated it may seem, it's not that far from reality either.
"The Chronicles of San Francisco" is a messy collage that reflects the messy nature of the place, not shying away from ugliness or sadness, but also reminding us that this remains a city of many kinds of human beings — the narratives about the tech-employee tsunami notwithstanding.
The piece will live in the museum's Howard Street lobby — officially the Roberts Family Gallery, where Richard Serra's Sequence has live since the museum's reopening — until the fall of 2020, when it will be replaced by an actual Diego Rivera mural as part of an upcoming retrospective. And that gallery off the street is free to enter for the public during museum hours.