Shadows and Reflections

By Deborah Wise

The artist is Christian Boltanski and the church as backdrop is particularly appropriate for the art. Here the mix of religion, death, life, the real and the unreal–all key elements in the artist’s work–is more palpable than it could ever be within the conventional confines of a museum. “Life is much more moving than art,” says Boltanski. “1f people think something is art they are not touched in the same way.” To produce the results he wants, Christian Boltanski, Ombre, 1986.

Boltanski manipulates his images and his audience: what you get from his work is rarely exactly what you see. And when you meet the artist you can never be sure exactly who you are talking to.

We are in his studio in Malakoff, a suburb just south of Paris. The area is a converted factory divided into 14 separate spaces, many of which are used by artists. Boltanski shares one with his wife, artist Annette Messager. Today he has decided to sit behind the chair and smoke his pipe as he talks. He is nervous of direct personal questions and though we could speak in French, he has decided to practice his English, which is Gallic but quite fluent. The ambiguity of a non-mother tongue is perhaps reassuring.

Says Boltanski: “The artist is a man with a mirror that he holds in front of his face and everyone who looks at the mirror recognizes themselves. But the artist, nobody knows him.” The pipe keeps going out and being relit. There is a picture of the church installation on the desk. All around are remnants of his work through the years: old photographs, biscuit tins, electric lamps, small cut-out skeletons, vitrines.

Boltanski moves to the center of the vaulted room and crouches down, a favorite position, to make cut-outs of skeletons in thin copper. These are the tiny objects he then projects with lights and candles to give them new shapes and new life. Creating them is a kind of therapy. Once he made 3,000 tiny balls of earth, in search of an unattainable perfect round. On the wall behind is his work-in-progress: rows of wrinkled shirts. He bought the clothes for 10 francs a kilo and says they come from dead people. Their lives are left only in the wrinkles, but because wrinkles are such everyday reminders of the bodies, there is a sense of recently departed spirits in the air. He is living with the piece to see if it will eventually work.

Boltanski has been challenging his audience to react to his obsessions for 20 years, since his first Paris shows in the early seventies. He gained a loyal and appreciative audience, a limited fame, at an early age primarily because of the support he received from Ileana Sonnabend. She walked into one of his shows, decided to buy the work, and bring Boltanski into the fold of her gallery, which became something of a home away from home for Boltanski. But though he exhibited regularly in Paris and New York. he rarely sold. Now at age 43 he has a growing reputation worldwide. Museums and private collectors are buying his pieces, and in the next two years he will have shows across the United States in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

So the world and Boltanski are beginning to converge. “In the 1970s he tried to avoid sculpture,and in the 1980S, when painting was coming back, he tried to avoid painting,” says Bernard Blistene, who curated Boltanski’s 1984 show at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. “He was working against the art world and getting stronger and stronger”.

The goal has always been the same: “To produce emotions with visual things,” according to Boltanski The mediums have ranged from painting to collage to photography to decoupage and the influences from Warhol to Beuys, from Kienholz to Kiefer. And his early methods have gone from the absurd to the playful There was the time in the early seventies when he sent a fake, handwritten suicide note to 30 people. “If I had sent it to just one, it wouldn’t have been art,” he says Likewise, a printed letter would have made the recipients doubt its authenticity. He got seven chilling, gut responses and one letter full of live cockroaches in return. “I don’t do that kind of art now; it’s too dangerous,” he says.

In his early work Boltariski made a conscious effort to disappear, Zelig-Iike, into his surround-, ings. His reconstructions of his childhood in photographs show the everyday events of a child’s life; in thiS case, portraits of CB. as a child in the form of the ad!)lt Christian Boltanski ‘When I worked with my childhood, nothing was true,” admits Boltanski. “I did it on purpose because it becomes a collective childhood and not special because I did have a speCial childhood It was the perfect environment in which to become an artist.” It would be too easy to fall into pseudo-psychoanalytic interpretations of his work, yet for all his desire to merge with the world, to “reconstitute” the past as ordinary, it is this very particular past that ultimately emerges.

The Jewishness of his heritage, for example, is omnipresent. According to Bernard Blistene, it may be this thataffects his American audience most. For better or worse, Europeans are less direct in their confrontation of their collective past. .Boltanski’s monuments, built around the photographs of children, evoke a sad sense of untimely death: young souls trapped in smiles and bodies that will never have a chance to age. Last year, for a piece entitled Le Lycee Chases at the Kunstverein in DusseldorL he took a minuscule photograph of the class of 1931 of a Jewish high school in Vienna. He blew up the individual faces to such an extent that when lit by a naked bulb, they became dark cadaverous skeletons. Earlier pieces, such as the vitrines full of insignificant objects that the artist claims are “all that is left of my childhood,” show the elements of life — implying death,– in the traditional form of a natural history exhibit. It is a mixture of tragedy and the quotidian that is not necessarily JeWish, but essentially evocative of a Jewish past.

The instaIIation made for Documenta 5 in 1972 — Album de la famille D — has a similar but more secular effect. Here is a wall full of photographs, all of the same size, of as family’s pastimes They show what we all recognize as the family at play: beaches, parties, Ie ter. “All happy families are happy in the same way … ” Yet behind the smilesis an accumul sense of tragedy by omission. As we can recognize ourselves at the
beach, we also know hidden, darker side of the Family 0, and perhaps also of CB.

In many ways, that Documenta was a landmark for Boltanski The curator Harold Szeem grouped his work with that of many of the “Brut” or “Mad” artists, under the heading Indivi al Mythology. The young Boltanski liked bei~g part of the concept. ‘When you are an ar you are an artist in a period We speak with the language ?f our time,” says Boltanski. “I not a minimalist. but I am close to the language of the seventies. If I am a good artist I have language from just one time.” He doesn’t reject minimalism as such, but rather amplifies TOI Blistene sees Boltanski as progressing from “individual mythology to mythology. In the beg ning he worked on the mythology of everyone; that is, presenting his past as the collecti past. Later he worked on the mythology.”

Boltanski is concerned with the mysticism in art arid in creation. He talks of havi’ the grace to create, of having to be independent. separated from the commercial forces dominant in the art world today. “It is important for an artist not to need much money,” r .says. He is sad for artists who get caught up in the affluence of success. He cites Arman “who used to be a good artist (before he became popular) and is now not a good artist. You have to choose your life,” he says.

Boltanski’s choice is simple. He wears second-hand clothes and uses discarded objects as hi materials. He pays his way by teaching, so as to be free from the imperative to sell, though eve, that is not as simple as it seems. For him, teaching is an escape and a saving grace Yet it is no essential, and possibly may even be detrimental, to the artistic process. “It’s much mOre diffi. cult to be alone at home and to make art.” says Boltanski And though he rejects the commercial side of art. he is extremely savvy and professional. He stays in contact with CUrators. HE shows in all the right places “He is a very smart man,” says Ghislaine Hussenot, who represents him in Paris now. His schedule for 1988-89 is testament to this.

In New York, he is now represented by Marian Goodman. He broke away from Sonnabend as he might have broken away from a mother. To him it was part of growing up: something simple to say, but traumatic to do “Sometimes you have to escape from your family,” says Boltanski “Sometimes you have to have a quieter, less emotional feeling,”

Yet to be an artist is to choose to work alone with emotions. The image of Boltanski is of a man crouched in a corner making tiny cut out puppets, He works diligently, waiting for the inspiration that will give him the courage to move his copper skeleton five inches to the right and know that is where it should be, He has succeeded in waking up the outside world, And in the chameleon process of his art: he has succeeded in blending in with his work and the world.

“If people have a vision of you, you have to escape that Vision,” he says, The artist is always on the move, a flickering image sometimes larger than life, sometimes just a reflection.

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