Christian Boltanski

Yvon Lambert Bookshop

Christian Boltanski’s most recent solo exhibition was a sort of summation of his work, but with an unexpected note that turned the show into an emotionally resonant event. The gallery space was divided into four parts, each set up as a station along a journey. The first stop was a large room dominated by a gigantic photographic portrait of the artist himself as a child, succeeded by ones at various ages up to adulthood, projected on a transparent surface that, blown by a fan, swayed in the air. The room was dark and the work difficult to see also because of the poor quality of the reproduction. As always with Boltanski, the image seemed a sort of relic, the precarious yield of an attempt to save something from the oblivion signified by the darkness or, at best, the half-light into which the work was plunged.

The second stage of the show reiterated the life of Boltanski the artist, but even more so the life of Boltanski the man. A large number of display cases, hung on the wall and filling the entire room, contained photographs, letters, and papers documenting the artist’s personal and professional history. But dense as these materials were, seemingly reconstructing a life by using the tools of an anthropological archive, something interfered with the reconstruction: The vitrines were illuminated only from high up, by faint lightbulbs. As a result, only the upper portions of the documents were visible, all but signifying, with effective simplicity, what Leopardi expressed in his great poem dedicated to the “extreme vanity of everything.”

The third stop along the path contrasted the melancholy initial image (childhood) with the idea of death, proposed in such laconically explicit fashion that it seemed cruel. Above a series of horizontal metal panels resting against the wall, the artist wrote pairs of dates by hand, apparently the birth and death dates of unnamed people. The inscriptions in black, with their anonymity, evoked the graves of paupers as well as the concentration-camp universe that has often inspired Boltanski. But the metaphors that articulated this exhibition were less explicitly linked to that context than usual, with the paradoxical result that the work, devoid of specific historical motivation, was even more laden with emotional meaning.

These evocations of both historical and individual memory were followed by a large, absolutely empty room illuminated by daylight. This space, at the end of the path, was inhabited solely by the sound of a male voice incessantly punctuating the passage of time simply by announcing the precise time of day. In other words, the light of reality submerged us in the simple truth of being there, and the artist now guided us to perceive real as opposed to historical time.

This reemergence of an awareness of the “here and now” after the “long day’s journey into night” constituted a new and unexpected feature in this exhibition, and perhaps in Boltanski’s oeuvre. The contemplation of memory and history that has always been second nature to his work now involves us directly, in our unshakable individuality, in an appeal to what we know to be truths that concede nothing to self-satisfaction and instead turn into disquieting testimony.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.