Why The Panthéon Is Covered In Black-And-White Faces

Why The Panthéon Is Covered In Black-And-White Faces

For the past two years, the Panthéon in Paris has been undergoing a renovation, its signature dome wrapped in a cute little plastic hat. This week, the 1790 structure revealed an art installation to tide tourists and residents over until the work is complete: thousands of black-and-white faces covering its marble surfaces.

The faces are the work of street artist JR, who collected portraits of thousands of people, some voluntarily uploaded to his website, some captured with his roaming photo booths throughout the city. He arranged the faces into large-format prints which can be seen covering the aisle, the cupola and the dome of the Paris landmark.

The juxtaposition between the Neoclassical architecture and the portraits is striking but somehow it all works; the photos are almost like flattened monochromatic versions of the 19th-century statuary. But the symbolism is also interesting. These 4000 folks are now memorialised — or will be until October — in the same place where tourists go to visit the remains of famous Parisians like Votaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Marie Curie. (The Panthéon was originally built as a mausoleum.)

Au Panthéon is the latest in JR’s Inside Out series, a multi-year, multi-city exhibition for which he won the TED Prize in 2011. JR travels to different communities throughout the world and photographs local residents, placing their photos on the outsides of the buildings in their neighborhoods.

Although the Paris project is mostly a feel-good public art installation, JR has also used his work to address social issues. He’s previously placed photos of Jews and Palestinians on either side of the separation wall in Jerusalem, shown the resilience of Haitian earthquake victims, and seems mostly intent on putting faces to victims of violence or political unrest. The resulting building-size faces can fall somewhere between hilarious and haunting, and — love it or hate it — JR’s work always seems to stop people in their tracks. The Panthéon exhibition is up until October 4. [JR]

Separation Wall Security Fence Israeli Side, Abu Dis, Jerusalem, 2007

Wrinkles of the City: Michael, Downtown Los Angeles, USA, 2012

Inside Out: Tunisia, Police Station of La Goulette, 2011

Inside Out, Rising Souls, Haiti: the resilience of Haitians; Port Au Prince, Haiti 2011

Inside Out: High Line, 30th Street, New York, USA, 2011