Christian Boltanski

January 25, 2014
Christian Boltanski opening at Carriageworks
Christian Boltanski opening at Carriageworks

Life as a conveyor belt, taking us inexorably from birth to death, is not an original idea. Charlie Chaplin had the same thought in the famous sequence from Modern Times (1936) when the worker is dragged through the machine.

Chaplin had a political agenda but the image also captured the helplessness and insignificance one feels in a world dominated by the vast impersonal forces of finance and ideology.

This is not simply a political problem but a deep-rooted existential anxiety that life is brief and largely out of our control. Samuel Beckett put it succinctly in the most quoted line from Waiting for Godot (1953): “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant then it’s night once more.”

For some reason Paris has always been one of the epicentres of this feeling of despair. From the outside it may seem there is no city more laden with distractions, no place more devoted to art and intellect. Perhaps the French have talked themselves into these dilemmas, which seem to have little bearing on the functioning of everyday life.

Christian Boltanski (b. 1944) a Parisian born and bred, has made a career from re-presenting the data of lived experience in striking, large-scale installations that leave viewers horribly aware of their own mortality. One of these installations, Chance, may be seen at Carriageworks as part of this year’s Sydney Festival. The central section, called Wheel of Fortune, features a reel of photographs of the faces of newborn babies, drawn through a massive arrangement of scaffolding. It is Chaplin’s machine all over again. It’s also reminiscent of newspapers going through an old style printing press, although nothing ever comes off this apparatus. At intervals an alarm sounds and a single baby’s face is featured on a screen, as if selected as a special prize-winner.

This work was originally created for the French pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, where it transformed a classically styled interior into a crammed industrial space. It seems more at home in Carriageworks, which was built originally as an industrial site. Here, as curator, Beatrice Gralton describes it, the installation extends for the length of an Olympic Pool. The makeshift structure is eight metres tall and composed of some 20 tonnes of metal scaffold.

At one end of the framework there is a second component called Last News From Humans, consisting of a huge LED counter that allegedly ticks off the number of people born that day, while a counter at the other end records the deaths. Births outweigh deaths by a considerable margin, which may be a cause of foreboding rather than celebration.

In a corner of the room we find a third component called Be New, in which two screens, divided into three bands, flick through the mugshots of old and young people taken from newspapers. Most of the fragmented faces are those of dead Swiss citizens, although the babies are Polish. The images tick over like a high-speed poker machine that creates bizarre combinations of eyes, nose and mouth, until the viewer hits a button, freezing a particular face for a few seconds.

With an earlier version of this work Boltanski promised that if anyone managed to get three parts of the same face they could take the machine home. I’m not sure if these conditions apply at Carriageworks, but there are much better odds for winning the lottery.

Unlike so many contemporary artists Boltanski is neither an ideologue nor an activist. He claims to be less concerned with aesthetic pleasures and intellectual stimulation than with drawing out an emotional response. He refers to himself as an Expressionist in Minimalist trappings.

In an essay on Boltanski’s work, Catherine Grenier of the Centre Pompidou writes: “His intention is not to instruct, but to disorientate the viewer, which explains his taste for dark spaces, unusual places, and for the constant rereading and reinterpretation of his earlier output.”

If there is one theme that dominates Boltanski’s work it is memory – its necessity and unreliability. In previous installations he has reproduced the photos of people from obituary columns and the faces of those who died in the Holocaust. He has made inventories of people’s possessions, and assembled mountains of old clothing that make one think – inevitably – of the dead. All these faces and articles of clothing lead to the most melancholy reflections.

Every photograph is necessarily a record of something lost forever. The Polish babies on Boltanski’s conveyor belt are now children, with the uniformity of the newborn faces giving way to individual features and personalities. The photographs allow us to hold fast to a moment in time, just as the obituary photos keep alive the memory of a loved one.

Boltanski likes to quote the Polish theatre director, Tadeusz Kantor, who believed that we all carry within us a dead child. Those memories of childhood may be happy or traumatic, but they are the earliest (and perhaps most important) of the stockpile of stories that constitutes every human life. These stories are constantly being reshaped by our memories and desires until the line between fact and fiction disappears. When we die our stories are told and retold by others, until forgotten. Although this is a completely banal observation it has provided Boltanski with material for some of the most powerful installation work being made today.

He acts as an archivist rather than an interpreter, accumulating quantities of apparently trivial information. On the small island of Teshima, in Japan’s Inland Sea, he has created a constantly growing project called The Archives of the Heart, which stores recordings of individual heart-beats. At the Musée de l’Art Moderne in Paris he has a permanent installation called Storage Area of the Children’s Museum, featuring metal shelves stacked with children’s clothing.

The clothing makes one think of the victims of the Nazi gas chambers. The heart-beats have a more affirmative role, suggesting that the vital pulse of a human life may be preserved in perpetuity.

Chance has a dualistic perspective, giving equal weight to both birth and death. The mystery is what happens in-between, as lives follow diverse paths dictated not merely by the place of one’s birth, or economic circumstances, but by sheer luck. Think for instance of the writer, Ödön von Horvath, who had conquered Europe with his play, Tales From the Vienna Wood, but was killed by a falling tree branch on the Champs-Élysées in 1938, at the age of 36.

There is a large element of chance in the destiny that makes some people victims and others executioners.

Boltanski is not willing to say that some are evil and others good. He doesn’t believe an artist should play the prophet or the moralist, railing against injustice and apportioning blame. He doesn’t set out to entertain an audience, but neither does he seek to provoke or offend.

He portrays life as a game in which we are all necessarily gamblers. We have our share of good or bad luck, but the house always wins.

Chance is by far the most substantial artistic contribution to this year’s festival, outweighing the clever, crowd-pleasing work of Argentina’s Leandro Erlich, whose Merchant’s Store at Darling Harbour gave the illusion of people crawling up the sheer side of a building. The Erlich installation has just closed, but you may still be in time to have a last bounce on Jeremy Deller’s inflatable Stonehenge, this weekend, at the northern end of Hyde Park.

One can appreciate the gag in Deller’s work, but Florentijn Hofman’s globe-trotting Rubber Duck, which spent 10 days floating on the Parramatta River, was a monument to the universal triumph of banality. The Duck makes the Big Pineapple or the Big Merino look like icons deeply rooted in the spiritual life of a community. The only time the work ever had any significance was when it deflated in Hong Kong Harbour, becoming a floating omelette. At this moment it attained a visual form that accurately reflected its intellectual ambitions. Let’s not forget that Jeff Koons has made artworks from giant pieces of kitsch since the mid-1980s, with considerably more acumen.

The final special Festival exhibition featured three installations by Slovakian artist, Roman Ondák, presented at Parramatta Town Hall as the 28th Kaldor Public Art Project. I won’t dwell too long on these pieces because the show finished yesterday, after a run of only a fortnight.

Visitors could revisit the Swap installation from last year’s 13 Rooms extravaganza at Pier 2/3; have their height marked against the wall in a piece called Measuring the Universe (2007), or stand on a facsimile of Ondák’s balcony from his apartment in Bratislava, conveniently lowered to ground level. I don’t imagine that many readers will be gnashing their teeth in frustration at having missed this experience. In fact it’s rather depressing to stand on a Bratislavan balcony and look out onto Church Street Mall. When I said I’d been to Parramatta to see this show, someone asked: “What did you swap?” Answer: “About three hours out of my day for five minutes’ worth of art.”

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 25 January, 2014