March 2014

Arts & Letters

Christian Boltanski’s chance at life

By Mireille Juchau

© Didier Plowy

The French artist in Sydney

 “At home I have 6000 Polish babies,” says Christian Boltanski at the Sydney opening of his new installation, Chance. “Very quiet.” The internationally renowned French artist is referring to his vast collection of photographs, some of which feature in the work at Redfern’s Carriageworks (until 23 March).

Boltanski, dapper in a pale jacket, dark shirt and silk cravat, has a special interest in vernacular and found photographs. (“I have 20,000 photos of dead Swiss at home.”) To these he adds light and shadow to create elegiac sculptures and altar-like assemblages. His work has been exhibited widely, and often outside the gallery (a cathedral in Spain, a Japanese island, with a future work planned for the Chilean desert). Much of his oeuvre has been a meditation on mortality, fate, memory and death.

Chance, commissioned for the 2011 Venice Biennale and brought to Australia for the Sydney Festival, is uncharacteristically lighthearted. Perhaps that’s because its photos (from the birth notices of a Polish newspaper) portray the promising beginnings of life, or maybe because the baby faces, tightly cropped in black and white, have a faintly comical air. (Boltanski: they are “exceptionally ugly”.) Each infant, just hours old, has the doughy, waterlogged pallor of a creature recently submerged.

Chance continues the artist’s exploration of his own infancy. He was born in 1944 in Paris during the Nazi occupation. For 18 months, his Jewish father hid under the floor of the family home. Boltanski’s childhood, spent listening to the stories of his parent’s Holocaust-survivor friends, produced an acute desire “to preserve memory”. It also made him conscious of the role luck played in his birth and survival. He quickly realised how futile it was “to fight against the fact of dying”, even though in his artwork he was striving to arrest time. The photos he frequently uses – many of them showing Jewish children from the 1930s – do not preserve what they attempt to memorialise. Like the second-hand clothes he has exhibited – forming, in one installation, a 50-tonne mountain – his photos are “an object where the subject is not there any more”. Such works allude to the Holocaust and often seem a direct response to it, but Boltanski would prefer his art to convey a universality.

Chance comprises three connected works. In Wheel of Fortune, the infant portraits wind in a continuous loop within 20 tonnes of scaffolding. This “baby factory” towers above its visitors and gives off an agreeable hum. At intervals, a bell sounds, and the face of one randomly selected infant appears on a screen. In Last News from Humans, LED timers tally the number of daily births and deaths worldwide. (Alarmingly, 200,000 more people are born than die on an average day.) Be New, an arcade-style folly, allows viewers to produce a composite face from rapidly scrolling photos of Polish newborns and deceased elderly Swiss by pressing a button. Boltanski is fascinated by the idea of conception as jackpot, and as a form of preservation. After all, he says, your own face is a memorial. By reanimating your late aunt’s aquiline nose, or your grandmother’s Cupid’s bow, your features can call up past generations.

In recent work, Boltanski likes to have people “inside of something” rather than in front of it; he aims to make “an art hotel”. Exhibiting away from the clinical white cube of the gallery can shift a viewer’s reception, and attract unexpected audiences. “A church or a garage or a factory is a place with a lot of memory – a lot of people were there,” Boltanski says. Some works, such as The Heart Archives – the heartbeats of 75,000 people from around the world recorded and housed on Japan’s Teshima Island – require no attendance at all. Though these beats have been used (and were recorded) in some of his past assemblages, on the uninhabited island they create “a mythology”.

Boltanski has preserved several elements of his living self. After his death, his heartbeat, recorded for the Archives in 2005, will keep thudding away off the coast of Japan. Similarly, the plainly titled The Life of C.B. assures him some pre- and post-mortem notoriety.

The Life of C.B. is Boltanski’s legendary bet with the owner of Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art, David Walsh (whom Boltanski calls “the devil of Tasmania”). For a monthly fee, which he will receive until his death, the artist beams 24-hour live video of his suburban Paris studio to MONA on the Berriedale peninsula. The sum negotiated with Walsh, who made his fortune as a professional gambler, is based on Walsh’s unsettling prediction of Boltanski’s lifespan. He gave the artist, who was 65 at the time of the 2009 deal, eight more years.

“If I die in three years, he make a good business. If I die in ten years, it is a catastrophe,” says Boltanski. Walsh will have then paid much more than he estimated the work to be worth. The gambler told the artist he has never lost a bet. Such a man, making such a claim! Boltanski says he must be “stronger than a god”.

When asked about this deal during his Sydney talk, Boltanski groaned, with mock-tragic homesickness, “Home, home, ah!” He was glancing at footage of his studio, where he also lives. “It is a long and sad story,” he said, and laughed heartily. “He wanted to buy a piece of me. I thought he was so strange and so clever that I wished to play with him.”

These days he has little contact with Walsh and won’t be visiting Tasmania on this Australian trip. “Is better not to be friends … because he plays with my whole life.” But he’ll sometimes send Walsh a virtual “’ello, ’ello!” by waving to the studio camera.

“He never phones me or sends me mail,” says Boltanski. “But I know that he looks at me.”

The Life of C.B., with its four-screen grid and washed-out gradation, is as banal and fascinating as security-camera footage. Watch Boltanski sit behind a computer. Peer at the unremarkable corners of his studio, empty of humans. Behind his desk, a shelf strains with books. In a 2002 article for the Tate Magazine, Boltanski wrote, “The big problem when you’re an artist is that the times of creation don’t come often. Most of the time I stay here in my studio and groan, and after that I go to my room, look at the TV.”

Boltanski is wistful and genial, with a melancholy that may be part artist persona but also feels genuine. “At the end, you become your art … you disappear and you become your art.” With his pale skin, pouchy eyes and smooth skull, he bears a passing resemblance to those Chance newborns. Though he jokes that he’s more like “a biscuit box”, the tins he’s used in several installations. (“I love life a lot, I love to eat, I love life.”)

His work is “a little Zen story”, a question without an answer; his career has been “a very long and naive psychoanalysis”. He was lucky to be an artist, otherwise he might have become “a mad person”.

“I hope there is humour in my work,” he says, “but there is no joke.”

Mireille Juchau

Mireille Juchau is a writer and critic. Her most recent novel is The World Without Us.

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