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Palimpsest souls

"Unframed — Ellis Island" by JR at the former Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital in the Hudson River, NY paired with Laurence Dacade Pete Distressed Crackled Boot.

“Unframed — Ellis Island” by JR at the former Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital in the Hudson River, NY paired with Laurence Dacade Pete Distressed Crackled Boot.









A family gazes at the Statue of Liberty, a goal within grasp. Seven children, heads wrapped in cloth, arrive with scalp disease. A group of men receive “psychopathic” diagnoses. Deemed unfit for entry into the United States, these people – plus some 1.2 million more – were sent to the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital for study, treatment and release into their new homeland. For a century, photographs documenting their journeys aged in an archive with countless others. Now, they reemerge as part of French artist JR’s latest installation, “Unframed – Ellis Island.”

Famous for his large-scale portraiture projects, JR finds himself indoors on Ellis Island, which makes this iteration of “Unframed” feel like his most intimate offering yet. After weeks of wandering through the decrepit compound, he has created nearly two dozen tableaus on flaking walls, broken tiles and cracked windows. Faces grace nearly every room, save for the morgue. “The idea is to respect the architecture,” JR told The New York Times. “I let the walls decide what part of the image should appear.”

The TED Prize-winning artist became obsessed with the abandoned landmark after reading photographer Stephen Wilke’s book, “Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom.” Once considered a paragon of public health, the hospital spanned 29 buildings and even employed female doctors. All told, about 1 percent of arrivals received treatment there. Closed to patients in the 1930s, the hospital became a Coast Guard outpost, then a military detention center before being wholly abandoned 60 years ago. “Today, some rooms look like beautiful industrial-age ruins, littered with leaves and shattered glass,” writes Melena Ryzik, “and others somehow remain pristine, with even decades-old light bulbs still hanging.”

Against this layered backdrop, life-size palimpsests now greet visitors on guided tours (tickets became available today for the 10-person tours starting October 1). “Unframed – Ellis Island,” sponsored in part by the nonprofit Save Ellis Island, will remain on view “until it decides to disappear.”

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