PRINT October 2021



Christian Boltanski, Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 2010. Photo: Didier Plowy.

IT WAS SNOWING SO HEAVILY that winter afternoon in Moscow that Christian Boltanski and I had trouble finding our way back to the Lenin Museum. This was in 2005. We were in town for the first installment of the Moscow Biennial, which took place in dusty old buildings near Red Square. Visibility was limited to a few feet. Dressed in black, as always, the artist looked like a dark shadow in front of me. Occasionally he disappeared into the white void.

There he is. Now he’s gone. That image was the first thing that came to mind when I heard this past July that Boltanski had died at the age of seventy-six. Memories of his Moscow installation Odessa’s Ghosts—black coats hanging in a dimly lit space, casting eerie shadows—followed.

In his art, Boltanski died many times, so no one can claim he didn’t prepare us for this moment. All over the world, he was known for his tireless engagement with mortality in work after work, most of them involving discarded objects and images. “I am totally obsessed with death,” he said. By 1969, he had published a book titled Reconstitution d’un accident qui ne m’est pas encore arrivé et où j’ai trouvé la mort (Reconstitution of an Accident Which Has Not Yet Happened and Where I Found Death). He kept coming back to his own demise and to those of others—often large groups of anonymous people who left nothing but their clothes behind. He explained that a garment reminds you of the person who was in it: “A piece of clothing is a hollow image of a person, a negative.” Photographs and clothes have that in common: They are objects that function as souvenirs of subjects. As he said in a 1990 interview, “It is one of the strangest things, the fact that we are all going to die. We are all so complicated, and then we die . . . Suddenly we become an object you can handle, like a stone. But a stone that was someone.”

Christian Boltanski, Odessa’s Ghosts, 2005, mixed media. Installation view, building owned by the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow. From the 1st Moscow Biennale. Photo: James Hill. © Christian Boltanski, licensed by ADAGP.

In 2009, he installed surveillance cameras in his Paris studio to produce La vie de C.B. (The Life of C.B.), a film commissioned by a Tasmanian art collector who made his fortune through gambling. Those cameras remained there for the rest of Boltanski’s life, and the collector transferred the agreed sum as a monthly payment. The deal represented a kind of bet: If Boltanski, sixty-five when he initiated the work, lived eight years beyond its inauguration, he would make a profit.

“He assured me that I will die before the time is up because he is a professional and never loses,” Boltanski cheerfully told an audience at the Städelschule in Frankfurt shortly after the deal had been struck. We all laughed. It was one of the best-attended lectures in the art school’s history. And one of the most joyful.

Now we know how things turned out. When it comes to death, no one could beat Boltanski. He won. He is finally dead but four years in the black.

And yet it really is incomprehensible to me that he is gone, because no one seemed more alive to me. It will be impossible to forget his jokes, his generous laughter, or his hilarious stories on all manner of topics—about collectors like the gambler, about bizarre rituals, about his brother, or about the Germans, whom he loved, though he was given to comments such as “In Germany, you have all these nice old grandfathers who were also murderers.” And then there were his amusing and painfully precise observations concerning all those unremarkable experiences that make up what we call our lives, e.g., “Each person is the sum of small events, anecdotes, small knowledge, like that there is good veal roast in such and such a restaurant on Thursdays. And when they die, that is what disappears.”

In 1990, I acquired Boltanski’s 1990 work Reconstitution, a cardboard box containing eighteen objects: letters, postcards, posters, and small catalogues, one of them providing a kind of portrait of a deceased woman from Bois-Colombes, France, through tiny black-and-white photographs of all of her belongings. I can’t believe it has been thirty years since I wrote an article for the Swedish journal Kris in which I tried to theorize this project using Michel Foucault’s late writings on subjectivation, comparing Boltanski’s work to Sophie Calle’s photographic projects from the same period. Since then, I have lived in many different cities and have always kept the box with me.

Christian Boltanski, La vie de C.B. (The Life of C.B.), 2010–21, live video feeds from the artist’s studio. © Christian Boltanski, licensed by ADAGP.

Writing this obituary, I find a reason to finally open it again. All the quotes above, with the exception of the statement about the gambler, are from the documents the cardboard carton contains. A polyphony of voices from the other side emerges from it. The art world of three decades ago speaks. Long-dead people I once knew query Boltanski about his childhood. He dodges their questions, and yet some biographical details emerge: He was born in Paris just a few weeks after the city had been liberated from German occupation. He and his two brothers (one of whom, Luc Boltanski, would become an influential sociologist and theorist of capitalism) lived in a large house with their Catholic mother and Jewish father, who had spent the war hiding under the floorboards. Some of the artist’s earliest memories were of family friends telling stories about surviving the horrors of the Holocaust. It seems that his parents lived in fear long after the war was over and rarely left the house. Boltanski and his siblings seldom went to school. One of his brothers told him he could be an artist, so he started being one. He was entirely self-taught.

Boltanski described himself as a sentimental Minimalist. He had nothing against being called emotional.

Everyone agrees that the preceding biographical details are accurate, but in other contexts, notably his exhibitions, Boltanski traded in a kind of autofiction, emphasis on fiction. It started with his very first solo exhibition, “La vie impossible de Christian Boltanski” (The Impossible Life of Christian Boltanski), held in 1968 at Paris’s Théâtre le Ranelagh, where he presented photographs of anonymous people, creating the sense that these faces would have something to do with the person known as CB. The falsehoods continued until the very end. “A big part of my activity is linked to the idea of biography,” he explained, “but a totally false biography and one . . . with all sorts of false proofs. One can find this throughout my life: the nonexistence of a person. The more one speaks of Christian Boltanski, the less he exists.”

The late critic Stuart Morgan, one of those familiar voices from the other side, tried to clarify the situation in a conversation quoted in the cardboard box:

SM: You have claimed that you no longer remember anything about your childhood because you have told so many lies about it, is that true?
CB: No I was lying.

Boltanski described himself as a sentimental Minimal-ist. He had nothing against being called emotional. In fact, he saw it as his task to make viewers cry in front of his work, and he often succeeded. Although he rarely made explicit reference to the Holocaust, no one can avoid thinking of photographs from the Nazi death camps when confronted with Boltanski’s installation built out of piles of clothes. It’s tempting to see this aspect of his work as reflecting his background as the child of a Jewish Holocaust survivor, and the aesthetic of his many works involving portraits lit by electric lights as reminiscent of the flickering displays of votive candles in a Catholic church. But for Boltanski, it was important that his art explore human experiences that we all share. Explaining his 1990 installation Reserve of Dead Swiss, he stated, “Before, I did pieces with dead Jews but ‘dead’ and ‘Jew’ go too well together, it is too obvious. There is nothing more normal than the Swiss. There is no reason for them to die, so they are more terrifying in a way. They are us.”

Christian Boltanski, Reconstitution (detail), 1990, cardboard box, three softcover catalogs, five softcover artist’s book reprints, two facsimile letters, photocopied flyer, exhibition invitation, two black-and-white photographic cards, three color postcards, color poster, box 12 3⁄4 × 10 3⁄8 × 1 3⁄8". © Christian Boltanski, licensed by ADAGP.

In the distant epoch when traveling between countries was still a normal thing to do, I used to see Boltanski on a quite regular basis. Three years ago, during our very last dinner together, at the Paris restaurant Bofinger, I asked him if he would like to explore the relatively new artistic medium of virtual reality. I took for granted that he would dismiss the proposal. Instead, he immediately offered an idea for a work. It would involve still-active Facebook accounts of deceased people. The viewer would travel through the texts and images in virtual space. “Could we do this together?” he inquired, turning his large and friendly face toward me.

“I think so,” I responded.

Not too long after that, I tried to remind him of the conversation, but he never responded to my messages. 

I myself have never had a Facebook account. But I recently realized that Boltanski has one. He has more than nine hundred friends, and I half expect him to post a status update at any moment.

Contributing editor Daniel Birnbaum is the artistic director of Acute Art in London and a professor of philosophy at the Städelschule in Frankfurt. His novel, Dr. B., published earlier this year by Gallimard, will appear in English translation next spring (HarperCollins).