Christian Boltanski

Paris France 1944, lives and works in Paris

One could call Christian Boltanski the artist of the shadows. In many of his installations, there prevails a darkness uncommon to the museum. The flickering light of candles, for instance, casts onto the wall the shadows of little figures cut out of metal; blurred photographic portraits in black frames are dimly lit by small desk lamps. His work is moreover almost void of color. Black-and-white photographs, used clothing and drab or rusty storage tins appear frequently in his installations and evoke a mood that could hardly be described as cheerful. Also in terms of metaphors, Boltanski shows a concern for the realm of darkness. Throughout his work, one sees the predominant theme of death and its relationship to remembrance and commemoration.

It is tempting to attribute Boltanski’s preoccupation with death to his Jewish background. However, Boltanski continually stresses the fact that his work does not deal specifically with the Holocaust. His work reflects death in its many forms: violent death and ‘normal’ death; childhood, which is an irrevocably closed-off life to every adult. Furthermore, photographs in themselves basically relate to death. They show a moment from the past that is gone forever, dead.

Les Concessions, from 1996, shows death explicitly and in its most horrific form. The work consists of dozens of black cloths hung at various heights on the wall. A ceiling fan makes the cloths flutter slightly, making it evident that they conceal something. Those who lift the cloths see greatly enlarged, ghastly photographs of dead, mutilated bodies. Boltanski obtained these pictures from the Spanish magazine El Caso, which gloats over violent crimes. Some visitors will want to look away, repulsed by the sight. But Boltanski deliberately opts for involvement on the part of the viewer and wishes to evoke an immediate emotion with his art. And as is often the case with his work, he turns the viewer into an accomplice, so to speak, through his provocation to lift the cloth, thus making the shock of the image more intense. Boltanski’s directness is not, however,  one-dimensional but stratified. In Les Concessions one first sees black rectangular cloths, which bring to mind the organizational principle of abstract Minimal Art. Along with this, the cloths have a practical value, since they allow every visitor to decide how far he wishes to go in his confrontation with the shocking images.

Black is obviously the color of mourning, but to an even greater extent, the black of Les Concessions is the color of obscurity. By lifting the cloths, it is as though one lifts the anonymous dead from the black hole of oblivion, after which they can be covered again with compassion. It is but a small comfort for the suffering which they had to endure.