Art TED Prize

Giant Olympic athletes take flight over Rio in JR’s latest work

In JR's latest work, a Sudanese high jumper curves around a building in Rio's Flamengo district. Photo: Courtesy of JR

Sudanese high jumper Mohamed Younes Idriss had to miss the Olympics this year because of an injury. But he towers over Rio de Janeiro, his back curving atop a high-rise building, in JR’s latest large-scale work. Photo: Courtesy of JR

A Sudanese high jumper towers over Rio de Janeiro, arching over a 25-story building in the Flamengo district. A triathlete plows through the waters of Botafogo Bay, mid-stroke, her wingspan as wide as a city bus, while a giant diver shows us the soles of his feet as he leaps from the stone jetty in Barra da Tijuca. Meanwhile, a truck disguised as a camera is circling the city, and a fat silver moon is taking shape atop a favela cultural center. It looks like JR is back in town.

Artist JR, winner of the 2011 TED Prize, created these three massive athletes — he calls them the “giants” — for the Rio Olympics, along with a city-wide Inside Out photo campaign that will shoot street portraits throughout the Games.

JR is known for his large-scale black-and-white wall pastings, but the “giants” represent a new technique for him — they’re suspended in the air on scaffolding, in vastly ambitious site-specific works that took almost a year to plan.

To create the gargantuan image of French triathlete Léonie Périault powering her way through Rio’s Botafogo Bay, JR wrote on Instagram, his team fought like an athlete with the navy so that this piece could be in the water. Photo: Courtesy of JR

To create the gargantuan image of French triathlete Léonie Périault powering her way through Rio’s Botafogo Bay, JR wrote on Instagram, his team “fought like an athlete … so that this piece could be in the water.” Note the tiny figures in the boat in foreground for scale. Photo: Courtesy of JR

JR feels strong ties to Rio; his classic work “Women Are Heroes” speckled the city’s hillside favelas with photographs of women’s eyes. Watching the Olympic Games here is especially meaningful to him, he wrote on Instagram before the Opening Ceremony: “Eighty years ago the Olympics happened in Berlin. Hitler wanted to use them to demonstrate the supremacy of the Aryan race. Today they will open in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a ‘mixed race’ country. Even though Brazil is going through political and economic turmoil and the necessity of the Games at this moment can spark controversy, the Olympic spirit will joyfully be welcomed.”

JR has also brought his TED Prize wish to the games. The Inside Out photobooth truck is parked at Praça Maua through 14 August, and will then spend a week inside the Olympic Village, right up until the August 21 close of the Games. Passersby line up to have their portrait taken, and then paste it on the ground, creating a patchwork of images representing people from all parts of the world.

Seeming to leap from the quebra mar (jetty) in Barra da Tijuca, here's the back view of diver Cleuson Lima do Rosario, a Brazilian athlete who now lives and works in France. Photo: Courtesy of JR

Seeming to leap from the quebra mar (jetty) in Barra da Tijuca, here’s the back view of diver Cleuson Lima do Rosario, a Brazilian athlete who now lives and works in France. Photo: Courtesy of JR

JR brings Inside Out to Olympic Boulevard. Photo: Courtesy of JR

JR brought the traveling Inside Out photobooth truck to Olympic Boulevard, pasting the faces of global passersby on the street for all to see. Next week it moves to the athletes’ home base in Olympic Village. Photo: Courtesy of JR

JR stands atop an unusual art space, soon to open in Rio. Photo: Courtesy of JR

JR’s team is also busy building a silver structure shaped like a fat crescent moon over Casa Amarela, a favela cultural center the artist helped open nine years ago. He hopes that artists will hold workshops in this unusual space. Photo: Courtesy of JR