Art in Paris: Big Sister is watching you

This weekend hundreds of immense pairs of eyes will be gazing at the river boats on the Seine. They belong to heroic women from the world's worst trouble spots. John Lichfield meets the artist

They peer, sadly or defiantly or joyously, from the ancient quays like the eyes of Big Brother, or rather the eyes of Big Sister. The whole circumference of the elegant 17th-century Ile Saint-Louis in the river Seine is being transformed this week into an immense photo gallery of blown-up eyes. Even the bridges linking the island to the right and left banks of Paris will, by tomorrow night, become bridges of eyes, rather than bridges of sighs. A team of 100 volunteers is pasting the island's quays and bridges with a frieze of poster-photographs of female eyes, five miles long and up to 20 feet high. This will be the largest and most ambitious artistic statement in Paris since 1985, when the American-Bulgarian artist Christo wrapped the Pont-Neuf in a silky material the colour of sandstone.

To whom do all these immense eyes belong? Do they belong to film stars? To models? To politicians? No, they belong to, amongst others, Zippy Vugutsa, a 47-year-old, poor, single grandmother in Kenya; Peng Phan, a 55-year-old woman who helps street children in Cambodia; and Rebecca Deman, a 13-year-old single mother and victim of civil war and rape in Liberia. The exhibition, which will last one month, is the work of "JR", a young French photographer-graffiti artist, or "photograffeur". JR, who never gives his full name, has become internationally celebrated in the past four years. He pastes up – mostly uninvited – giant prints of his photos in the midst of civil conflicts all over the world, from the Israeli-Palestinian border to the violent slums of Brazil and Kenya.

In Israel and Palestine he took pictures of grimacing taxi-drivers, hairdressers, chefs, security guards. He blew up the images and stuck them on the wall separating Israel from the West Bank. Which were the grimacing Israelis? Which were the grimacing Palestinians? Most people could not tell. Most famously of all, he took pictures of three joyously grimacing men: an imam, a rabbi and a priest. Those images, posted, or printed side by side, have become famous all over the world.

The "eyes" on the Ile Saint Louis are the product of a two-year world tour called "Women are Heroes", intended to mark the courage and suffering of women enduring poverty and violence in Brazil, India, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Kenya and Liberia.

JR, 27, took photos of the faces, or sometimes just the eyes, of impoverished, mistreated but defiant women and pasted them up, poster-size, within the slums where they lived – on walls, or on bridges; on flights of steps; on the sides of buses; and, in Kenya, along the length of a train.

He then took photos of the giant photos to paste up, giant-size, in open-air exhibitions in Brussels and Berlin and now his home city, Paris.

The photographic "lasso-ing" of the Ile Saint Louis – commissioned as part of a Paris Nuit Blanche, or all-night festival, tomorrow – is JR's most technically implausible project to date. "I have never done anything so big before. I doubt anyone has ever done anything so big before," JR told The Independent. "My previous largest, in Berlin, was 4km of posters. This is 8km.

"I spent the whole of the summer measuring the island with a tape-measure, or in my flat, staring at computer-simulations, fitting possible images to spaces.

"A week ago, I worked out how long it would take to paste up all the photographs with the 15 helpers we had. The answer was 45 days! Panic. Depression! I was going to call the whole thing off. We put out a call for volunteers by word of mouth. We now have 100 people, working in teams all day and all night. We should be finished just in time."

The party to celebrate the official opening of the exhibition will have a guest chef: Rosiete Marinho, 42, from a favela, or slum, in Rio de Janeiro. Rosiete, a cook who has never left Rio in her life, owns one of the giant pairs of eyes to be seen gazing from the Ile Saint-Louis. She is flying to Paris, at JR's expense, to prepare Brazilian dishes for the grand opening, which includes a tour of the newly decorated island by launch.

JR, who comes from a middle-class Franco-Tunisian family, began his photographic career 10 years ago when he found a cheap camera accidentally abandoned by a tourist on the Paris Metro. He has never had a lesson in photography. His images (small-size) now sell in Paris galleries for up to €12,000 (£11,000).

JR uses commercial companies to blow up his photographs. They emerge from the photocopying machines in strips 80cm wide. The rolls of paper are then pasted up using classic glue and long-handled, wide brushes. For the Ile Saint-Louis, JR's team had a big advantage; it was able to mix the glue on the spot with water from the Seine.

Almost all of the cost will be covered by JR himself from the proceeds of his print sales and a recently published book and forthcoming film of his "Women are Heroes" tour. The fourth arrondissement of Paris, which commissioned the exhibition, will pay to remove the posters in one month's time. A telephone number will be shown with each image, which people can call to hear the name of the person and her story.

JR's work is about much more than size. He goes to places ruled by suspicion, poverty, violence and oppression but insists that his mission is artistic, not political. "I am not an artist with a cause but an artist who causes people to think," he says.

"These women are the kind of victims who might be given a few seconds on the nightly news and then forgotten," he said. "By looking into their eyes, you see that they are not just victims but survivors. And now here they are looking out at the people of Paris. When the tourist launches go past at night and illuminate the eyes for just a few seconds, the effect is extraordinary: much better than I could have hoped for."

What next for JR after wrapping an entire island with photographs? Mont Blanc? Everest? It would not be entirely surprising to look out one night to find that a pair of eyes has been pasted on the Moon.

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