Christian Boltanski’s studio in Paris has a 24-hour video surveillance camera to record his daily movements, yet the artist is as likely to be holding court elsewhere – such as a packed room at Think Coffee, as he was on 12.12.14 for a Jewish Museum Program. Boltanski sold the rights to record his studio 24/7 to a Tasmanian gambler, who pays the artist for each year the artist is alive. Believing this will be the first bet that the gambler loses, Boltanski is not beyond betting on his own life. He speaks with authority, mystery, and humor. Added to this, he has a suave Alfred Hitchkock-like profile – large jowls and chin, shaved head, and barrel chest. His subjects are the same — the inevitability of time and death along with the doppelganger—history and memory.
For Boltanski, memory and history are dark shadows of each other – neither mirroring each other nor expressing the “truth.” Since history, memory, and time end for each human being in death, Boltanski’s mission as an artist is to somehow invent installations, objects, and settings that enthrall diverse peoples — aesthetic metaphors of the human condition to reinforce each human’s individuality, humanity, — and mortality.
Christian Boltanski briefly described his studio practice by saying he has two kinds of work. For smaller projects, he builds maquettes. For large projects, he first works alone, then proceeds as though making a movie. First he works with an agency that designs three-dimensional sets; then he goes to the exhibition location for the installation and fine tuning. Boltanski’s last big New York project was for the Park Avenue Armory in 2011. Within the giant drill hall, he installed a semblance of neighborhoods with a grid of streets that held lawns of coats representing human life. In the center of the hall, a crane rhythmically dropped clothing onto a mountain of old clothing, signifying death. The materials shown at the Armory were recycled or destroyed, yet the same idea played in Milan, Paris, and Japan.
“I was born in a time of Nazis and Communists, and now we are in a time of no history, no death; everything is okay. Jeff Koons sells to people who have bad taste. People who buy Jeff Koons don’t have history, memory… I speak only for me. In my mind, I would be a rabbi if I was born 400 years ago in Poland or a shaman if I was born 400 years ago in Africa. To be an artist is to ask the same question. To be a good artist is very difficult. To try to understand is important.” [i]
Among other things, the artist mentioned that his Jewish father and Corsican mother named him Christian Freedom when he was born on the 1944 day that Paris was liberated from the Nazis. Boltanski pointed out that even the Nazis loved their children, celebrated seasonal holidays, and practiced kindness. In response to my question about increasing anti-Semitism in France, he noted that 15-18 % of voters in France belong to the conservative Tea Party-like Le Pen party, which is projected to grow to 35-40%. Some Muslims, Nazis, and conservatives make up the group that discriminates against the Jewish population, which is slightly larger than the 2% Jewish population in the United States.
The most important part of Christian Boltanski’s art practice is engaging viewers of different ages, cultures, and backgrounds. Inside his vast, immersive installations, spectators become participants. The art invites each individual to explore the spaces and objects, to notice beauty in familiar objects, and to find the “truth” that lies between memory and history.
http://www.sculpture.org/documents/scmag11/apr_11/bol/bol.shtml. Inside the Worlds of the Dead: A Conversation with Christian Boltanski by Jan Garden Castro (also at jancastro.com)
http://www.mariangoodman.com/artists/christian-boltanski/ for artist’s works, bio, his present show in Oxford, England, and upcoming exhibitions in Mexico, Italy, and Spain.
See also books by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Lynn Gumpert, and Catherine Gremier.
[i] Unless in quotes, all comments by Boltanski are paraphrases stated on 12.12.14 –either in the public forum or in the interview that followed — that the artist has approved. Thank you to the artist, the Marian Goodman Gallery, and The Jewish Museum.