New York

Christian Boltanski

The secret of Christian Boltanski’s art is repetition and gloom. One’s eyes have to adjust to the dimly lit gallery, and one’s mind to the repetition of photographs of faces, biscuit tins, and shaded lights. The faces are different—an individual life stands behind each—but they blur by reason of their redundancy; they become one haunting, generalized, melancholy image. This accords well with their chiaroscuro. A strange transference occurs that is conducive to introspection as we search the faces in their twilight: we see the endless number of suffering people and discover ourselves to be among them—just another face in the crowd. We too will die and take our dubious place in history as shady memories out of focus in the minds of others; when this identification is complete—when it hits us with insidiously suffocating emotional force—the concept that animates Boltanski’s art becomes concrete.

The works in this exhibition utilize some of the 3,000 images of dead Swiss that Boltanski has been working with recently. The most startling piece suggests a long corridor in a seldom visited archive—a repository of visual data meaningless to all but the relatives of the dead, and only intermittently meaningful to them. As Boltanski has explained, he stopped using images of dead Jews because “‘dead’ and ‘Jew’ go too well together.” He turned to dead Swiss because “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.” The point is that Boltanski does not want to deal with those who have been victimized by society (as though they alone have been singled out to die) but with those who have suffered at the hands of life, that is, with everyone, because everyone must die and suffer foreknowledge of his or her death. Boltanski is a connoisseur of death, an existentialist of everyday mortification. Each of his faces belongs to an Ivan Ilyich—to allude to the story by Tolstoy that Martin Heidegger took as a trope for the casual way one dies—but it is not clear that the people behind them shared Ilyich’s realization of aloneness that made his existence authentic, if only at his death.

Boltanski has said that he is preoccupied with the simultaneity of presence and absence implicit in images of the dead and especially with the paradox that we end up seeing them in photographs taken when they were full of life rather than on their deathbeds. But these issues are part of his larger epistemological point: we do not know what we think we know. We see a face, we think we know the person it belongs to, but all we have is a face with our expectations projected onto it, mixed with a little bit of hard fact—and that is not very perceptually sound. It depends on the light, as Boltanski suggests, and the light within us. He is a master of perceptual and conceptual irony, a critic of mass indifference, and a nihilist reminding us that we know next to nothing about each other and nothing in general. His art is full of the sort of pessimism that passes for wisdom, because it is the only safe bet that can be placed on life.

Donald Kuspit

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