Christian Boltanski: The World is his Studio

Personnes. Photo by Didier Plowy

Personnes. Photo by Didier Plowy

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

Almas, C. Boltanski en Chile, 2014. Personnes (Personas). Photograph by Jorge Brantmayer

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]

Christian Boltanski

La Roue De La Chance. Photo by Didier Plowy

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.

By Jan Garden Castro Inside the Worlds of the Dead: A Conversation with Christian Boltanski by Jan Garden Castro (also at 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.

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[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.

12 responses

  1. This is a wonderful piece on an amazing artists. His website link appears to be incorrect, however. I just thought it may be helpful to know that detail.

  2. Thanks to Louise, Luisa, and Kit for your comments! The web and Artnet seem to have many Boltanski images. I wonder what happened to his website! One viewer on Facebook commented on (seemed to misunderstand) Boltanski’s quote about Jeff Koons. To me, Boltanski’s point is large and not just about one artist. I think Boltanski is saying that his practice is devoted to humanism, to finding our common ground, person to person and heart to heart, to ending behaviors that trivialize life, turn people into objects, and, above all, that brutalize and kill. He’s not criticizing most of us but is disapproving of people who exploit or injure others for fun and/or profit and/or due to various kinds of bigotry. I welcome further comments on this or other points. Thanks for reading!

  3. Nice overview of Christian Boltanski’s work – and it prompts me to join the dialogue by looking at one of the core concepts of Boltanski’s practice: art as monument.

    On many occasions Christian Boltanski has remarked on monuments, including his comment that : ‘a true monument is not one that lasts forever, but one that must be re-built every day’ [1]. Boltanski exemplifies a contemporary turn in monument-making (ranging from “the logic of the monument” to the “unmonumental”) that redefines what a monument is/does while calling into question how culture remembers through art.

    In 2007 The New Museum of Contemporary Art opened it’s new building in New York with a survey show named “Unmonumental”. In the exhibit, the museum staked out a position for collage and assemblage as an important emerging trend in the making of art objects. The bountiful and “nervy” [2] exhibit featured de/unskilled production in a rough-and-jumble approach which was described by the museum as “un-heroic and manifestly unmonumental” [3].

    While most of the artists in that 2007 New Museum show were young, this was territory that had been energetically explored by earlier generations of artists including, among others, Rauschenburg, Tuttle and the Arte Povera movement, all of whom used mundane materials and unconventional juxtapositions to chart a deliberate trajectory away from the legacy of the New York School – a turn from the grand and, sometimes, aggrandizing, to detritus; commonplace scraps that challenged established ideas about what constitutes art. It was a thoroughly unmonumental vision. For a while.

    By the late 1960’s, a flourishing pluralism in art, especially sculpture, came to include not only the mundane and cast off but also works on a scale unimagined by even the most ambitious of the Ab-Ex artists. Ultimately, Land Art became a catalyst for one of that era’s defining analyses: Sculpture in The Expanded Field by Rosalind Krauss. In the opening section of her essay Krauss linked the rationale of monuments and sculpture, describing both as rooted in the function of commemoration; marking a place with meaning (“the logic of the monument”) [4]. In that tradition, the practice of making sculpture was focused on events, people or narratives that preceded what was then contemporary. (Most evident in the link between early Western sculpture and acknowledgements of the deceased such as sarcophagi and cenotaphs). What Krauss identified as the early raison d’être of sculpture is, in other words, the preservation of cultural memory.

    In Krauss’s view, the onset of modernism was accompanied by a shift from sculpture motivated by monumental qualities (literally rooted to base and place) to sculpture as an autonomous object. Contemporaneous with monuments descent from favor (and from pedestals), their former commemorative function shifted from a central role to a more marginal, specialized, aspect. Monuments became memorials.

    In 1981, two years after Sculpture in The Expanded Field was first published, Maya Lin won the design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC with a proposal that was controversial but soon set a template for contemporary expectations of what a memorial is. In the relationship of sculpture and landscape, this new monument/memorial embodied the post-modern shift that Krauss addressed and, crucially, it advanced text and inscription as coequal to the built work.

    The Lin piece (profoundly) marked not only lost lives but also a seminal occurrence of text as frame-of-reference for art. Prior to this the hegemony of textuality had been mostly confined within the domain of post-modern critique, especially deconstruction, but with the long-term pubic success of Lin’s work the permeation of built work by text – in the service of commemoration – has increasingly become a norm and a widely accepted means of ‘literal’ representation (though still not literal enough for conservative critics who insisted on the addition of figurative work to the Vietnam Memorial site).

    The proliferating adoption of a ‘wall of names’ to recognize the lost or fallen has now appeared in enough instances and varying degrees of skill and effectiveness that it may be reasonable to say that memorials have become the new monuments. If this indeed describes the operating condition for art as commemoration then it compels questions about the contingency of the plastic arts and text and, more significantly, a need for dialogue on issues of art as memory and how that relates to representation in contemporary creative practice.

    Christian Boltanski is one such artist whose projects demonstrate alternatives to the confines of figurative and literal techniques. He has described idealized visions of monuments as something “fragile, that would not last, like paper” [5] and a thing requiring that it be “constantly tended, looked after and rebuilt”. These aspirations of ongoing construction and preservation, ritualized performance, may not yet be fully manifest in his actual projects (despite the recently famous claw), however his signature clothing installations effectively advance a radically different vision of art as commemoration.

    Key to Boltanski’s strategy for bypassing figurative/literal modes is the substitution of implication for representation. In practice, while he downplays direct connections between his work and the Shoah, his calculations often hinge on Holocaust connotations (anonymous piles of old clothes, shrine-like installations, historic photos of presumably dead children, etc.). Without ever denying those references he is resolute in insisting that the work is more broadly about how we reconcile with death [7].

    Reception to Boltanski’s work has ranged from audiences who find it poignant to those who charge him with exploitation. Whatever side audiences choose in that debate, a sense of historic trauma and loss is firmly insinuated into the work in a way that demonstrates an effective break with the dominant figurative/literal monument. Boltanski points to a need for reimagining the ways that art helps us to engage with the fundamentals of how and what culture remembers.

    [1] The Independent, paraphrased by Tom Lubbock, May 8, 1994—-tom-lubbock-explains-why-hes-worth-it-overleaf-another-artform-another-way-of-remembering-1434581.html

    [2] Roberta Smith, New York Times, November 30, 2007


    [4] Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, (The MIT Press, 1986), 277-290

    [5] Rebecca Caines, Christian Boltanski, Representation and the Performance of Memory, (Afterimage, July/August 2004)

    [6] Ibid

    [7] Bomb Magazine Irene Borger, Christian Boltanski, winter 1989
    “If people know the material is from the Holocaust, they can’t think about anything else. The first time I showed The Lycee Chases was in Germany and everybody spoke to me about Nazis and all that. I said, “Yes, it’s true, it’s about that, but it’s also about all of us.” The idea when I rephotographed this little photo—it just seemed like dead people. I think we all have our death inside us. It’s more evident in that case but it’s also you, it’s also everybody, not only a Jewish person. I am speaking about that but I think and I hope to make a larger work, not only to speak about the Holocaust.”

  4. Dear John,
    Thanks for raising the issues of both art as monument and symbolic associations in Boltanski’s art. I have three different responses. First, Maya Lin’s latest and “last” monument is “What is Missing?” It is online/immaterial and designed to be interactive, so viewers can both learn about endangered species and also provide sightings and their own insights/input. Second, last night I was trying to describe Boltanski’s art to someone who is a typical person not familiar with contemporary art and its concepts. I’m not sure I succeeded. Part of the magic of Boltanski’s installations is being immersed in them and feeling the differences between, for example, the “streets” of coats all over the Park Avenue Armory (the living) and the central “mountain” of clothing (the dead) constantly patrolled by the giant crane (hand of death). I can’t do it justice here or give it credence as art using words. Third, Boltanski’s work always gets recycled. Unlike Christo’s fabric installations, which are cut into art souvenirs, Boltanski’s used clothing goes back to the Good Will in New Jersey — or wherever it came from — without being made precious or commercial.

    This essay has taught me how hard to impossible it may be to use language in relation to some art.
    Cheers, Jan

  5. Hi Jan,

    I couldn’t agree more with your overall conclusion!
    There are times when language fails and there’s no substitute for direct experience. I’ve always felt that Sontag’s Against Interpretation makes a beautiful and compelling case for that, especially in the closing paragraphs.

    What you say also points to a notion of art and the ineffable. Ineffability is often solely linked to art with spiritual or religious content but I like to think that reflecting on it’s fullest meaning (as a thing that can’t be described or spoken) starts to get to the business of what makes some art so extraordinary.

    This would also imply that art is not always best approached as “a language” but a domain of experience that requires different analytical tools then the kind of (deconstructive) textuality that I was critical of in my post.


    – John

  6. Pingback: Stiff and sharp edged. | CoffeePot Mim

  7. Pingback: Christian Boltanski – Carlie Thrower – Final Major Project Research

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