Art Criticism

Christian Boltanski
Les Abonnés du Téléphone
South London Gallery

Absence makes the art grow stronger The disappeared, the dead, the lost … Sue Hubbard finds that Christian Boltanski’s work draws potency from what is not there, as well as what is.

Christian Boltanski Les Abonnés du Téléphone 2002
Les Abonnés du Téléphone, 2002

In Language and Silence, George Steiner talks of being a “kind of survivor”. There is a way that I, even born some years after the war, am still implicated by the might-have-beens that link me, as someone who was born Jewish, by an invisible thread to others who were less lucky. Like Boltanski, I do not really know anything of Judaism’s festivals, orthodoxies or theology but know that like him, for the Nazis, I would have been defined as such. And because of that label history places on us, I and he are inextricably united to that past.

Boltanski’s work is much more subtle than simply being about Jewish history, the Holocaust, or even guilt and survival. Yet it is the fact of this cataclysmic event that gives colour and shade to his work. As the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard said, “We are all Jews after the Holocaust”. By this he meant that we are all capable of being caught up in atrocities, in the events of Bosnia and Rwanda, in the conflict in the Middle East. More than anything, Boltanski’s work is about the fact of dying. In his work, death becomes an aspect of life. When we meet he reminds me of Christ’s last words, “Father why have you forsaken me?… It is finished”. He finds it both incredible and beautiful that a whole religion should have been built on a moment of weakness and despair. Christian narratives are embedded in his work as much as Jewish history, he explains. If he had to choose a religion, it would be Christianity. This, I believe, is because his work is also about redemption and love.

“I am nobody. The more I work, the more I disappear”, he reflects. We are sitting talking amid thousands of telephone directories in the South London Gallery, where he is installing his new show. With his shaved head and unshaven face, this small nervy Frenchman in a grubby black jumper, obsessively poking strands of tobacco into his pipe with stubby stained fingers, is the epitome of Gallic Existentialism – an escapee from a Camus novel. Boltanski is a bundle of paradoxes, a quintessentially 20th-century artist working in the 21st century, a Judeo-Christian artist who has no belief in God, a man who describes himself as a painter, yet who makes installations, a Communist sympathiser who was never a Communist but rather a romantic sceptic.

He first came to prominence with major exhibitions in the mid 80s and early 90s at the Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris and at The Whitechapel Gallery, where he created magical installations using personal objects presented as archival artefacts, which acquired an iconic status. His use of non-art materials – school photos, family albums, rusty archives and biscuit tins, along with piles of old clothes – memorialises the unnamed and unknown: the dead citizens of a Swiss town, the workers of a Halifax carpet factory, as well as the erased children of the Holocaust. These are the traces left by individual, yet anonymous, lives. Beneath flickering shadows and bare light bulbs, the spaces in which he works take on something of the hushed reverence of a church or theatre to generate poignant evocations of loss. He prefers factories and churches to galleries, and has made work in Grand Central Station, New York and La Chapelle de l’Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, Paris. He creates, he says, “small memories” that give substance to the unofficial histories of the ordinary. It is as if this collection of ephemera might ward off death, keep its final, all-encompassing anonymity at bay. Like the makeshift shrines at the site of a crash, these works ritualise grieving and create ways of coming to terms with the most modern of taboos, death.

All work, he claims, begins with a kind of trauma. Child psychotherapist Melanie Klein talks about art being a form of reparation for infantile rage at the abandoning mother. She describes how, out of the smithereens of anger, something new can be reconstructed. Born in France in 1944, the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Boltanski experienced a childhood that was coloured by experiences of anti-Semitism. His father had spent much of the war hiding in basements. His is the enduring angst of the outsider. Early on, he pretended to speak of his childhood, though the reality disappeared in a construct of false mythologising. He cannot now remember what was true and what a fabrication, having created a kind of universal childhood that binds him to the mass of humanity. This humanistic web is central to his vision.

Whilst he implicitly deals with big themes such as the Holocaust, his art can also be read as a psychoanalytic journey; a process of mourning, not only for the victims of the Shoa, but for the death of his own childhood or, maybe, for the lost child within us all. His is a search for self-forgiveness. It is no coincidence that Freud was also a Jew. Western culture is, for Boltanski, about stories. We create our own myths. Stories are attached to objects and to the small moments and memories that, like Marcel Proust’s madeleine, they yield. A photograph, an old dress – each detonates its hidden histories. These are traces not only of something lost, but also of something shed. This shedding implies transformation; a movement from state to state, from unconsciousness to some greater consciousness.

For Boltanski, who is not conventionally religious, art is the religion of our day. And art, like religion, is a form of ritual, a way of ordering and making sense of the world. It is, he says, about recognition. That’s why he uses familiar objects such as biscuit tins. There is always a moment when something clicks in the mind or the heart. What philosopher and writer Roland Barthes called the punctum, that “Ah yes, that’s it!” moment that pierces the consciousness. Boltanski also works within the tradition of Christian art using the icon, and the sense of mystery, theatre and kitsch so beloved by the Catholic Church. He has said he no longer knows what it means to be an artist. Since the collapse of the Berlin wall, we have lost all sense of utopias. For him, art either works or it doesn’t. Aesthetics no longer mean anything. It is not a question of good or bad. “What I make, is something different to art”, he says. He tells a story of setting up an installation in Santiago de Compostela when an old lady asked what he was doing. “Commemorating the dead Swiss”, he said, and she seemed quite happy. If he had told her he was making a piece of conceptual art, she might have felt he was defiling the place.

A child of the 60s, he was part of that decade’s radical zeitgeist, influenced by the magical, priestly rituals of Joseph Beuys and the mutely enigmatic silences of the Catholic Andy Warhol. In the late 1960s and early 70s, he made little balls of modelled clay, along with small makeshift knives and roughly carved lumps of sugar, which he exhibited with bits of recycled string. This essentially non-hierarchical and democratic art followed the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s model of bricolage: art made from the ad hoc. Art, he feels, has to struggle against what is established. For many years, he was a member of a lose network of Parisian artists that included his partner Annette Messager, for whom art was a form of resistance against the strictures of bourgeois society. In 1970, invited to illustrate the cover of an American poetry magazine, ‘Blue Pig’, devoted to the poet George Tysh, he supplied a photo of a single, bare, electric light bulb and a few balls of earth. Tysh gave the issue the title ‘Cheapness means forgiveness’, an apt epigram for Boltanski’s work. There is a lack of preciousness about what he does and the objects he uses. If he had been an Italian, he might easily have been part of the arte povera movement. In a way, he is a deeply unfashionable artist. Committed and involved, he believes in issues.

He has claimed that the displays of inconsequential little objects – their use and function now long forgotten – in the big metal cases of the Parisian anthropological Musée de l’Homme were a major influence on his work. In 1973, he began a 15-year series, ‘Inventories’, which involved displaying all the household objects of a deceased person, without any commentary. In another work, using the archives of Michel Durand-Dessert – Durand being the most common French surname – he placed photos from the family album in a plausible chronological order, which, of course, was different from the narrative attributed to them by their owners. Photographs, with their implicit associations with loss, absence and death, have become a potent vehicle in Boltanski’s work. For memory is fragile, dependent on the icon and the relic. We need evidence, such as The Mandylion of Byzantium or The Veronica of Rome, it seems: rational explanations for the mysterious. Boltanski never takes photographs himself, and claims to feel more like a recycler than a photographer.

In 1988, he was invited to make an installation in Toronto. He called it ‘Canada’. The name not only referred to the host country, but also to the euphemism used by the Nazis for the depot where the effects – clothes, shoes, spectacles, even hair – of their victims were deposited before recycling. The piece consisted of thousands of articles of clothing acquired in flea markets, and was followed, at the end of the 80s, by other works such as ‘Reserves: The Purim Holiday’. In the vocabulary of psychoanalysis, the word “phantom” describes the secret pain passed from generation to generation without ever being made explicit. Boltanski refutes Theodor Adorno’s claim that it is not possible to make art after Auschwitz. These works represent the slow labour of mourning, the coming to terms with guilt and the secrets buried, not only at the heart of nations, but of families.

His 1991 installation, using photographs of dead Swiss (a people who have never been involved in war), poses questions about the uniqueness of suffering. Photos of Nazis, photos of Jews, of dead Swiss, they are all, he claims, just people. As viewers, we cannot assess who is a victim, who a torturer. All of us have the capacity to be both. He photocopies the photographs again and again, so that they become reproductions of reproductions and individuality becomes lost in a sea of humanity. What these works force us to do is face the mechanisms that made the Holocaust possible – misanthropy, abstraction, self-loathing, objectification. These things do not just belong to history. They are with us every day: now. He claims that he finds it hard to accept that dying is part of life. He acknowledges that we are each unique, yet but a speck in the flow of history. He quotes Napoleon’s infamous remark as he looked down on the carnage of Austerlitz – both shocked at its cold-blooded callousness, whilst also acknowledging its truth – that “A night of love in Paris will replace everybody”.

When the Tate Gallery bought Dead Swiss on Shelves with White Cotton, they amused him by asking what they should do if the cotton went yellow after a few years. He told them to change it. When asked what to do if the photos faded, he replied that there were always more dead Swiss. Then when they complained that the shelves would not fit, as they had been made for a different room, he told them to get more shelves. When a slightly exasperated curator asked just what it was that the gallery had actually bought, Boltanski responded that they had bought photos of dead Swiss, and shelves with white cotton: an idea not an object.

When he first introduced biscuit tins into his work, he peed on them to make them rust. But he used so many tins that he had to switch to Coca Cola. When they were exhibited in Hamburg and Oslo, the curators unpacked them wearing white gloves. This was ridiculous as the gloves immediately became rusty and red. The biscuit tins weren’t precious and should never have been treated as such. They could easily have been replaced. Boltanski’s work is about relics. In fact, it shares a similarity with the art of other cultures, such as Africa, where religious or ritual masks have no financial or material value and, when no longer used ceremonially, are, often, left to rot.

He views his work as a musical score. Akin to a musical composition, the piece he creates has no real existence until it is brought into life by a new performance or installation. It is, in a way, about reincarnation. For when a pianist plays a work of Bach, it is always Bach, though it might be Bach interpreted by Artur Rubinstein or Daniel Barenboim, just as a Boltanski might be interpreted by curator “Mr. Jones”. His work is unlike, say, a Willem de Kooning or a Mark Rothko, where the autograph of the artist is paramount. He also sees himself as closer to the geometrical abstraction of Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich than to the emptied Modernism of Donald Judd and Carl Andre. Like the 19th-century French writer Gabriel-Desire Laverdant, he believes that avant-garde art is an “attempt to lay bare… all the brutalities, the filth, which are at the base of our society”. It seems impossible now to imagine an artist of a younger generation having such a politically engaged response to art.

This new installation, Les Abonnés du Téléphone, transforms the space into a huge reference library with some 3000 telephone directories collected from around the world. Visitors can sit at tables and browse through the directories beneath the stark light bulbs, searching for lost friends abroad or trying to interpret the arcane listings in a language such as Japanese. Accompanying this is a sound piece in which the names of 12,000 registered voters living within a 10-minute radius of the gallery are emitted from shelves around the space. Central to this work are the implicit tensions between the global and the local, the individual and society, the included and the dispossessed. For, like all archives, this, by definition, is incomplete and flawed. How many of those whose names appear in the directories have died since their printing, and how many disappeared? In the theatrical semi-darkness a number of other more disturbing resonances are suggested: the efficient lists of the Nazi exterminators, of psychiatric patients and prisoners.

As Boltanski fiddles with his pipe, he emphasises that his work is a resistance to what he calls the “post-human”. I ask what he means, and he says cloning, genetic engineering, science that takes away our individuality and uniqueness. This piece, he says, nodding at the telephone directories, is a very Christian work. It is about community. These people are his brothers and sisters, just like the dead Swiss, the children of the Holocaust, and even the Nazis. He never, he says, suggests answers, only poses questions. Like Janus, he manages to look in two directions at once, turning to history whilst trying to make sense of the present.

Christian Boltanski Les Abonnés du Téléphone at the South London Gallery from 27 March to 5 May 2002

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2002

Images © Christian Boltanski 2002

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