Christian Boltanski

Magasin 3 Projekt (Djurgårdsbrunn)

Christian Boltanski is a romantic committed to a covenant between art and death. Inventory of Objects Belonging to a Young Woman of Charleston, 1992, for instance, impassively archived the mortal effects of a nameless dead woman. The title, subtly telling of a life cut short, serves the artist’s conscious effort to induce melancholic feelings that transform an anonymous death into a figure of myth. Boltanski’s dramaturgy borrows from earlier romantics, not least John Keats, who instructed that his tombstone carry only the inscription HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER. Indeed, Boltanski’s oeuvre might have appealed to Keats, who also once confessed, “I have an habitual feeling . . . that I am leading a posthumous existence.” Boltanski’s laconic visual language is in league with the romantic-mythic undertones of the individual rendered anonymous in death, especially, as for Keats, when the myth is oneself.

With the poetic meter of an elegy, “Les Archives,” persuasively organized by Tessa Praun, converts posthumous existence into tangible experience. The exhibition, occupying two floors connected by a long, faintly lit stairway, delivers an experience of corporal uncertainty. Together, the six installations (three earlier and three new projects) depart from Boltanski’s more inscrutable meditations on vanquished identity, posing concrete questions about physical and psychological characteristics. Entre temps (Meanwhile), 2004, leads the way: Chronologically arranged portraits of the artist (anonymous unless you recognize the subject) dissolve one into the next, and when the loop begins again and Boltanski the child emerges from the face of what he became, the effect is stirring. The portraits slip by in time as the amplified thumping of Boltanski’s heart echoes next door in Le Cœur (The Heart), 2005: A bare lightbulb pulses, counting fleeting moments with his heart’s rhythm. Turning into another room, one faced the video projection Être à nouveau (Being Anew), 2005, in which anonymous obituary portraits were collaged three at a time, eyes-nose-mouth, flashing on a string curtain to create composite faces. Weighed against the individual persona in the two previous rooms, identity here seemed to vaporize into posthumous existence.

Through the curtain-wall and down a staircase, Qui êtes-vous? (Who Are You?), 2008, a sound installation, asked its question in counterpoint to black mirrors obviously signifying that “you” are more than semblance can disclose. Être et avoir (To Be and To Have), 2008, filled a large room at the bottom of the stairs; abstract wooden figures wearing overcoats crisscrossed one another, evoking Giacometti’s City Square, 1948. Viewers’ movements prompt these ghosts to divulge (in Swedish) something of who they were—“I have nice memories” or “I am always afraid”—thus reanimating bodies with otherworldly clichés that reinflict the mind-numbing triviality that was their life.

An apposite coda for this exhibition was Boltanski’s newest project, Les archives du coeur, 2008. First in Stockholm and then globally, people have been invited to “donate” the sound of their own heartbeat to a digital archive Boltanski will place on Ejima, an uninhabited island off the coast of Japan. Remote in time and space, this archive of the sound of life will itself become a kind of myth. If Boltanski’s career has often seemed just one more stop along the heavily trafficked road of identity politics, perhaps he has turned a corner; this exhibition makes it clear that Boltanski knows what Keats must already have guessed (even though the poet only lived to twenty-five): If the subject of your life’s work is posthumous existence, one cannot fully grasp its meaning until late in life.

Ronald Jones