6 Times Christian Boltanski Got Us Thinking About Trauma, Memory and the Horrors of Humanity
Christian Boltanski in 2010. Photo: Didier Plowy. Image courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery.
Christian Boltanski, Monument, 1984, 26 red photographs, 3 anthracite photographs and 1 gelatin silver print in metal frames; 5 light bulbs, electrical wire, 105 x 198 cm. Image courtesy of K11 Art Foundation.
Christian Boltanski, Les Archives, 1987. Installation for documenta 8, Kassel 1987, Toronto, Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris.
Christian Boltanski, Les Vitrines, 2020, 3 glass cases, metal, cotton cloth, lightbulb, one-way mirror, metal frame, metal stand. Cases: 46 x 120 x 121 cm; 46 x 120 x 21 cm; 45 x 127 x 140 cm; Mirror: 54 x 199 x 36 cm. Image courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris.
Renowned French conceptual artist Christian Boltanski passed away at the age of 76, announced yesterday by his long-time gallery represent Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris.
TEXT: CoBo Editorial IMAGES: Courtesy of various
"I've filled my whole life trying to preserve the memory of living, in the fight against dying. Perhaps the only thing I've done, since stopping death is impossible, is to show this fight. The fight itself does not satisfy us either."
— Christian Boltanski
Born in Paris on 6 September 1944, to a Ukrainian Jewish father and a Corsican mother, Boltanski’s childhood memories was plagued by the traumas of World War II, when his father was forced into hiding by the Nazi occupation of France. Boltanski grew up with stories shared by his family about these dark times, which consequently made their way into the narratives of his art, his photographs, paintings, sculptures and installations, which are often looming with deft explorations of the transience of life and death. In memory of the artist, here are six works of art that resonated deeply with us:
L’Homme qui tosse (The Man Who Coughs), 1969
Exhibited at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, L’Homme qui tosse (The Man Who Coughs) is one of two films Boltanski produced with his brother Jean Eli in 1969. In the three-minute film, Eli is shown dressed in rags, his head entirely wrapped in bandages, with only a slight opening around his mouth left to breathe. He is seated on the floor of an attic, his body slumped and soaked in a red liquid that resembles both paint and thick blood, while sounds of heavy coughing reverberate throughout the film as it is played in a disquieting loop. The film, although more than half a century old, does not dim in its power to deliver a sense of oppression and angst to its audience.
Monument Series, 1989–2003
Boltanski began creating his Monuments installation works in the 1980s, where he gathers black-and-white portraits of children and combines them with light bulbs, cables and plexiglass to create installations reminiscent of worship or ancestral altars. These installation oftentimes include feature photographs of Holocaust victims, a history that resonates with Boltanski’s own memories, evoking the dark traumas of war and flirting with the universal consciousness of mortality and death, as in his own words, these children are “now dead, not really dead, but the images of them were no longer true.”
Les Archives (The Archives), 1987
His second participation in the quinquennial contemporary art exhibition, documenta 8, which took place in West Germany at the time, saw him conjure up a provocative installation that deals with the complexity of memory. Les Archives consists of hundreds of photographs of adolescents and children that came from school portraits and casual snaps, each minimally framed and blurred due to the process of re-photographing, paired with clamp-on lamps and candle-like bulbs in an ominous-looking installation that filled up the dimly-lit chamber. Given the political and social backdrop of the country at the time, it is easy to associate the images with those of children lost in the Holocaust. As New York Times art critic Roberta Smith puts it in her 1988 review, “It was as if the haunting face of Anne Frank, so universally familiar, had broken apart and we were seeing a small portion of the hundreds of thousands of lost children her face had come to symbolise.”
6 Septembre, 2005
Presented at the Musee d’Art moderne de Paris (Paris Museum of Modern Art) in 2005, 6 Septembres is a three-screen projection video by Boltanski that responds to the invitation of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA) to revisit its inexhaustible archive. The work takes as its departure point the artist’s date of birth and shows news reports of the exact day between the years 1944 and 2004. The news snippets are broadcasted in a time-lapse, accompanied by a soundtrack that has been sped up so much it is almost indiscernible, presenting the visual data outside of its usual mode of distribution. By condensing this collective history into a single video, Boltanski makes a subtle critque of the excessiveness of contemporary media.
Chance – The Wheel of Fortune, 2011
The large-scale kinetic installation was created on the occasion of the 2011 iteration of the Venice Biennale. Black-and-white photographs of the faces of Polish newborns, which were taken from newspaper announcements, traverse across the conveyor belts of a giant steel structure that resembles a factory assembly line. The operation stops from time to time at the sound of the alarm, where one of the child’s faces would be projected on an oversized screen. Through the installation, Boltanski once again contemplates the ephemerality and randomness of life, and plays with the duality of the meaning with the word “chance”, which carries slightly different meanings between English and his native French.
Les Vitrines (The Vitrines), 2020
Les Vitrines was exhibited in his last solo exhibition, “Après”, earlier on in the year at Paris’ Marian Goodman Gallery, as a new iteration of a work originally created in 1995. Set up like a crypt in what was the wine cellar of the apartment building of where the gallery is, thg installation features three glass cases that have been filled with bundles of white cloth, with a mirror placed in front that translucently reflects the only light source of the dark room, as well as the faces of spectators. Of the artwork, Boltanski notes, “Someone once explained to me that in Shinto shrines, in sanctuaries, there are a series of passages from one room to another, and in the last room there is a mirror, which means, that in the end, what do we see? We only see ourselves.”