R5 – The work of Christian Boltanski


Christian Boltanski

All web sites accessed 01/07/2017

Boltanski’s work is about human identity, individuality,  memory and forgetting, dying and commemorating the dead.  Boltanski said What drives me as an artist is that I think everyone is unique, yet everyone disappears so quickly’ Tate Magazine Issue 2, Studio: Christian Boltanski, 2002 at http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/studio-christian-boltanski.  The objects and photos in his work are usually found, not made by the artist.  They serve as reminders of human experience, often evoking suffering and tragedy, but there’s no implicit or explicit reference to the subject or their history.

Eleanor Heartney says Boltanski has explored “how modes of display imbue simple objects with layers of meaning…the way in which objects are displayed thoroughly determines how we will perceive them” (Art and Today, p352)

His art works create an interplay between perception, memory (the viewer’s individual or cultural collective memory) and imagination.  In Archive Dead Swiss for example (Art &Today, p 354), Boltanski thereby leads the viewer to attribute the idea of suffering or death, or the fragility of identity and memory to the work, and as a result to experience a strong emotional response when viewing them.

This is relevant to my part 5 assignment, where I will curate and display my collection; the viewer will be affected not only by each item in it, but also by how the collection looks in my display.


According to Boltanski ‘A good work of art can never be read in one way. My work is full of contradictions. An artwork is open—it is the spectators looking at the work who make the piece, using their own background. A lamp in my work might make you think of a police interrogation, but it’s also religious, like a candle. At the same time it alludes to a precious painting, with a single light shining on it. There are many way of looking at the work. It has to be ‘unfocused’ somehow so that everyone can recognize something of their own self when viewing it.’  “Tamar Garb in conversation with Christian Boltanski,” in Christian Boltanski (London: Phaidon Press, 1997), p. 24 at https://www.guggenheim.org/arts-curriculum/topic/christian-boltanski


The following can be seen at http://www.mariangoodman.com/artist/christian-boltanski

  • Several works are large scale photographic portraits printed on fabric; sometimes the veil is glowingly lit from behind (also see Christian Boltanski, Collective Unconcious by Nora Landes, at http://mariangoodman.com/sites/default/files/Musee%20Magazine%20%28Fall%202014%29.pdf They reminds me of my monoprint and painted portraits from old family photos for part 3, especially those painted on silk and linen.  Perhaps portraits of neighbours could form part of my part 5 paper museum.
  • Other collections of small, found photographic portrait works are presented in the form of a shrine or an icon, and lit with lamps, such as Scratch, 2014
  • Sometimes the portraits are fixed to small boxes stacked on shelves, implying each box contains the ephemera of that one individual’s life, like Reserve Detective III, 1987.  More recent work combines this shrine- like arrangement with the small boxes and the lamps.
  • Many of his visual installations include the use of sound – for example the dozens of small, labelled bells on stalks placed in the landscape in Animitas, 2014
  • In some works such as Reserve Canada, 1988,  objects (in this case clothes), stand in for portraits (which stand for the unique individual).

In Personnes (see https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jan/17/christian-boltanski-personnnes-paris-review?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other) Boltanski lays out clothes in their thousands in camp-like spaces on the ground

In developing a recent work, the artist wanted an audio recording speaking the name of every person in the world.  As he says, there are just too many people to make this practical, and also people are dying and being born too quickly.  I’d love to make an audio recording speaking names of people in my village (there are not too great a number), with background audio of the pervasive sounds on an outdoor summer evening- dogs, muezzin, bells, crickets, drums, music.


What I like and dislike about Boltanski’s work:-


His work can be thought of as dark, macabre and sad, dealing so heavily in death – Tom Lubbock, The Independent, 07/05/1994 at  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/remembrance-of-things-past-christian-boltanski-is-a-multi-media-artist-theres-the-book-the-triple-1434581.html; But for me it is also hopeful and optimistic, affirming a belief in the unique identity of every person, living and dead.  In Boltanski’s opinion, everyone is unique and important, (but everyone also disappears so quickly).

Viewing my environment through Boltanski’s eyes:-

My work for Part 5 is going to be about my tiny village and surrounding environment.  As a foreigner I observe my neighbours with a degree of detachment that wouldn’t be possible for a local – as though I’m seeing them for the first time – and at the same time I feel an emotional connection from being an outsider who’s been taken in and adopted by a small community.  Boltanski would view these individuals as lives to be commemorated, their portraits to be made and displayed in some way that suggests their uniqueness for example, the pasting of the portraits of individuals to stacked tins or boxes, suggesting contents specific to each person’s life.

I collected photo portraits of some local people and thought about ways of editing and displaying them.  A simple grid format as below (made digitally) suggests little as a group, though the portraits are interesting and highlight individuality.

Another idea, inspired by Boltanski, is to arrange portraits (maybe monoprints, or quick paintings with thin watercolour or ink) alternating neighbours who’ve died and those who’ve been born while I’ve lived here. I’ll think about how I’d display these to suggest to the viewer what I want to say, and how I see them.

Other works by Boltanski are collections of everyday objects – some sourced from Lost Property offices, tonnes of clothes sourced from jumble sales – which are displayed en masse, to seemingly represent the dead, lost or forgotten.  Our village life has its own day to day ubiquitous objects;  broom, pick, plastic carrier bag and bottle, scythe, bowls, cauldrons, baking stones, plastic jar, hosepipe, tractor, blanket, kilim, shalwar, all manner of clothes…..  in my mind these objects represent not the dead but the continuum of life and are temporarily identified with individuals who are born, live and die here.

Sounds, smell and light are part of the environment in which I live.  The sounds of dogs barking and owls hooting at night, voices carrying across the valley; cocks crowing at dawn; chainsaws cutting wood, tractors working away; goats bleating and being directed, bells tinkling;  crickets grating in the heat; the muezzin singing, marking the passing of time.  The smell of cooking fires, pine, eucalyptus.  The unobscured light of sun, moon and stars repeating their passage every day from before any of us were here till after we’re all gone.



Art and Today, Eleanor Heartney, Phaidon Press 2008

Christian Boltanski, Collective Unconcious by Nora Landes, at http://mariangoodman.com/sites/default/files/Musee%20Magazine%20%28Fall%202014%29.pdf accessed 01/07/2017

Christian Boltanski, “Tamar Garb in conversation with Christian Boltanski,” in Christian Boltanski (London: Phaidon Press, 1997), p. 24 at https://www.guggenheim.org/arts-curriculum/topic/christian-boltanski, accessed 01/07/2017

Tate Magazine Issue 2, Studio: Christian Boltanski, 2002 at http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/studio-christian-boltanski (accessed 01/07/2017)

Tom Lubbock, The Independent, 07/05/1994 at  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/remembrance-of-things-past-christian-boltanski-is-a-multi-media-artist-theres-the-book-the-triple-1434581.html


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