New York

Christian Boltanski

Sonnabend Gallery

Christian Boltanski is French. This, his first New York solo exhibition, dealt with his life, his previous art and exhibitions, with the lives of others, and also with the lack of distinction between any of these things, if only for the reason that they all, by virtue of being exhibited together at this time, became Boltanski’s most recent work. The contents of a number of vitrines reflect this kind of mixture. A random sampling includes: a book in which the adult Boltanski reconstructs scenes from his childhood; pieces of clay which represent 11 attempts to reconstruct a compass he used as a child; things labeled “Hair of Christian Boltanski in a white piece of cloth (sent to sixty people, October, 1969)” and “15 of 900 sugar cubes chiseled by Christian Boltanski, March–June 1971” as well as letters to European museum directors proposing an exhibition of the belongings of a given individual and catalogues of the resulting exhibitions. The vitrines display representative examples of Boltanski’s activities to date, presenting a jumble of life, art, fact, fabrication, and reconstruction. In what Boltanski calls an effort to “preserve the moments of life” he obsessively covers the same territory again and again, uncovering new material with each trip, putting as much into his past as he pulls out of it. For example, a book titled 10 Photographic Portraits of Christian Boltanski 1946–1964 actually contains photographs of ten different boys of different ages taken on a single afternoon in a park. Each is identified as Boltanski at a specific age and date. The reconstruction is specifically false; however it projects a sense of reality for it does trace the process of growing up. This piece is simultaneously autobiographical and anonymous; these strangers unknowingly become a part of Boltanski’s life story by being incorporated into his art and vice versa.

Boltanski also exhibited three photograph pieces: “The 27 articles of clothing belonging to Christophe F. in 1972,” part of the photograph album of Family D, and over 400 pictures of criminals and their victims (precrime shots, since, as the pictures indicate, most criminals know their victims and are usually related to them) gathered from a detective magazine. Last of all, Boltanski exhibited the contents of some anonymous New Yorker’s apartment, a continuous row of labeled furniture and vitrines cordoned off along the gallery walls.

The most recent work, for all its obsessive accumulations, involves an admirable degree of recycling; Boltanski is making no new objects; he is just borrowing or photographing extant ones. It is an interest which is more curatorial or archeological than esthetic. It is clear that anything can become an artifact, can be interesting or evocative, a vehicle for information about an unknown person or place. Of course, the inverse of this realization and part of the obsessiveness is the suspicion that curators are as crazy as artists. Boltanski states it better when he writes: “I think that all human activity is stupid. Artistic activity is also stupid but you can see it more clearly.” Boltanski’s artistic activity is to present human activity. The sense of this deliberate and conscious decision is, like the obsessiveness, the only aspect which can be taken as a conscious esthetic position. Otherwise the work is casual, banal, and virtually without esthetic or visual impact. Simply, it conveys the accumulations which result from the living of human life. There is possibly some psychological or literary impact involved. The various accumulations of photographs and belongings are recognizably poignant; you realize all the things and images in your own life: how much you accumulate, how much you forget and how similar it all is to what other people keep or forget. Ultimately the work is almost invisible—any impact it has is private and literary; like many novels, it is moving and disturbing to the extent that we see, or don’t see at all, our own lives in it. The impact is fleeting, obliterated by the banality of both the work and of the insights it offers. We have all seen our lives in similar but more profound ways; real novels are better, even if the idea of unwritten, plotless literature is entertaining.

Roberta Smith