JR punches a tunnel through Milan’s central railway station in latest optical illusion

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.

The French street artist JR has unveiled perhaps his most complex Italian trompe l’oeil illusion piece yet, turning a square outside Milan’s Stazione Centrale railway station into a temporary exhibition site of epic proportions. Entitled La Nascita (The Birth), the piece evokes a rugged Alpine terrain with layered black-and-white images. Part historical reflection, part social experiment, it aims to turn the station — the city’s busiest transport hub and a notorious hotspot for petty crime — into a place of chance encounters.

“In spaces that have social issues, my work is about bringing people together,” JR told The Art Newspaper during a launch event for the work in Piazza Duca D’Aosta, a vast square in the shadow of the station’s 50m-tall facade. “In a place like this, a huge range of people come to catch the train. When they find themselves in front of an exhibition, they will suddenly have a different kind of interaction.”

JR had been mulling over an installation in the square for some time. “Even before Covid I was thinking of doing something here, but my first idea was to do something on the floor, so I was scouting from up there,” he said, pointing at a grand hotel overlooking the square. “I never found the right idea, and eventually forgot about it.” - Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

The installation — which is timed to coincide with Milan Design Week, and runs until May 1 — harks back to a golden age of rail travel in northern Italy. Decades before dictator Benito Mussolini inaugurated the station in the 1930s as a monument to Fascist power and might, King Vittorio Emmanuele III laid its symbolic foundation stone in 1906, shortly after the completion of the trans-Alpine Simplon tunnel that connects Italy and France, and turned Milan into a transport hub.

Commissioned by Stazione Centrale, the piece evokes the mountains from which the tunnel was excavated, with paper images glued onto vertical slats and distributed to form a layered composition with the station visible behind. As with JR’s previous installations at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi and Rome’s Palazzo Farnese in 2021, the artist creates the effect of a gash — this time a tunnel-like void — cutting through the grand building.

However, while the Florence and Rome projects consisted of flat images mounted onto the fronts of the buildings, in Milan JR has tried to create a sense of depth. “It is the first time I do something like this with many layers,” the artist said. “The building is pretty intimidating, I rarely work on buildings that are this big,” he added. “It took me a while to really work out how to get through that station.”

JR hopes the installation will show the area in a new light.

“While the exhibition is temporary, even when it’s gone visitors will never see (the station) in the same way,” JR said. “Changing perspectives on things is always a way of looking at the world differently, and that’s what I always aim to do, no matter the circumstances.”

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