Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Christian Boltanski: Au Revoir Les Enfants

I picked up an old issue of Contemporanea Magazine which has a wonderful exchange between Christian Boltanski and Joachim Petersen entitled Au Revoir Les Enfants. I've always found Boltanski to be one of the more insightful artists working today and this interview is certainly no exception.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I transcribed the whole thing.

"Purim Reseve" . 1989 (Photograph of Installation)
© Christian Boltanski

Joachim Petersen: Your latest works deal more with death, particularly with violent death as the result of a crime or an accident. Is this a reaction to a personal experience?

Christian Boltanski
: It is not. Death is one of the great themes in art. I myself have been fascinated for a long time by the transition of a person from a subject to an object. Only yesterday, I could have talked to a person, we could have had dinner in a restaurant, and today there is nothing left of him but a lifeless hunk, a dead body. This subject-object relationship is important in daily life as well, for instance on the sexual level. There was one experience in particular that I remember. Every January, there are striptease tents along the boulevards near Pigalle on Montmarte. I went there quite often, and I will never forget the moment when I discovered that one of the strippers kept a Vittel bottle in the little plastic hut next to her, from which she took a sip from time to time. This "sex object" turned out to be a human being after all, a human being who was thirsty.

Joachim Petersen: The first thing one notices, when looking around in your studio, are the many photographs from obituaries and notices of missing persons, and then one discovers big piles of old clothes. What is the intention behind the idea of combining your Monuments with objects from a collection of old clothes?

Christian Boltanski: Garments are like a second skin. Every shirt, every pair of pants has a history of its own by the time it arrives here - in an enormous, anonymous pile - for an exhibition. Particularly interesting is the moment when a visitor first stalks and eventually walks without any hesitation over the garments spread out on the floor. The feeling is the same as walking over dead bodies. The situation is similar with photographs - a hidden pleasure while looking at photos of cruelty is in all of us, but most of the time I don't even show documents of violent acts.

Joachim Petersen: As a German viewer, I constantly have the feeling of standing before Holocaust victims when I view your installations. This particularly the case with your now famous Les Enfants de Dijon or your latest piece in the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Christian Boltanski: That is something I am confronted with time and again. But I don't mean the victims of the Nazis in particular; it is anonymous death in general that concerns me. There is, for instance, a paper in Spain, El Caso, that publishes particularly grim photographs of traffic casualties and murder victims. We don't have such pictures here. But I like these photos; they are lying around here everywhere. I even walk over them, and thereby become a perpetrator myself in a way. Conceivably this intermingles most clearly the role of perpetrator and the role of the victim. In fact, the Nazi henchmen murdered their victims thoroughly and efficiently, although they were loving family fathers or friends of animals. They did their job mechanically, following orders.

Joachim Petersen: Time and again, your Jewish heritage is mentioned in connection with your work.

Christian Boltanski: I grew up in a Catholic family. My father was a Jew; my mother a Catholic. I believe that I am both, although art has displaced religion for me. This means that art represents a moral institution in some respects. The artist holds a mirror in front of his face, and everybody who looks in the mirror recognizes him or herself at a little distance. In this sense, the individual work is only a trigger for associations that exist already in the viewer's mind. The popular cliches are important in this connection, especially in modernism, where the exemplary life of the artist is frequently more important than the work. The myth created around Andy Warhol or Joseph Beuys is proof of this phenomenon. In my case, the myth of the Jew is probably part of my "image," of my picture as an artist who creates such works.

Joachim Petersen
: Don't you think that you're artistic intentions went too far, regarding your installation Réserve du musée des enfants? Doesn't the viewer become the victim of a shameless game of irritation?

Christian Boltanski
: Yes indeed. Having installed the work in the basement of the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, I didn't feel quite comfortable, because the ghostly ambiance determined to a major degree the effect of my installation. That was not my intention. But despite that, I believe that this work in particular was particularly significant in my oeuvre. Somehow, one has to make people feel insecure, make them feel that they have been touched, make something happen after all, at a time when all heads are filled with pictures from films, from magazines, and from daily life. I like to exhibit in spaces that are not galleries in the traditional sense, because the unexpected creates an intensified sensitivity. Visitors feel insecure - they whisper or are afraid. The same holds true for my exhibition in candlelight, where the dim light and the shadows create an unfamiliar ambiance. Then there is also the haptic effect of the garments, which one tries to touch. That also has something to do with the effect of a sacral object, perhaps of fetish. Like the Charged Objects of Joseph Beuys, these clothes, too, are charged. Each individual garment has its history, its fate, its tragedy.

Joachim Petersen: You have spoken of artists as a moral force, and of art as a replacement for religion.

Christian Boltanski: These statements must be seen in the context of my biography as an artist. In this respect I was undoubtedly molded by the seventies. I believe in the provocative character of art as instrument for pointing out bad conditions or threats to vision, such as the indiscriminate flooding of the world with pictures. But at the same time, I do not proclaim a philosophy of life or a message of salvation. Instead, I believe that we artists present a life that we don't live. We pretend something that does not exist, some sort of theater.