Christian Boltanski (French, born 1944)

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«French sculptor, photographer, painter and film maker. Self-taught, he began painting in 1958 but first came to public attention in the late 1960s with short avant-garde films and with the publication of notebooks in which he came to terms with his childhood. The combination in these works of real and fictional evidence of his and other people’s existence remained central to his later art. As well as presenting assemblages of documentary photographs wrenched from their original context, in the 1970s he also experimented inventively with the production of objects made of clay and from unusual materials such as sugar and gauze dressings. These works, some of them entitled Attempt at Reconstitution of Objects that Belonged to Christian Boltanski between 1948 and 1954 (1970–71; see 1990 exh. cat., p. 11), again included flashbacks to segments of time and life that blurred memory with invention.

In the 1970s photography became Boltanski’s favoured medium for exploring forms of remembering and consciousness, reconstructed in pictorial terms. After 1976 he handled the medium as if it were painting, photographing slices of nature and carefully arranged still-lifes of banal everyday objects in order to convert them into grid compositions that reflected the collective aesthetic condition of contemporary civilization in a stereotyped way. In the early 1980s Boltanski ceased using objets trouvés as a point of departure. Instead he produced ‘theatrical compositions’ by fashioning small marionette-like figures from cardboard, scraps of materials, thread and cork, painted in colour and transposed photographically into large picture formats. These led to kinetic installations in which a strong light focused on figurative shapes helped create a mysterious environment of silhouettes in movement (e.g. The Shadows, 1984; see 1990 exh. cat., p. 20).

In 1986 Boltanski began making installations from a variety of materials and media, with light effects as integral components. Some of these consisted of tin boxes stacked in an altar-like construction with a framed portrait photograph on top, for example the Chases School (1986–7; Ghent, Mus. Hedendaag. Kst). Such assemblages of objects again relate to the principle of reconstruction of the past. Such works, for which he used portrait photographs of Jewish schoolchildren taken in Vienna in 1931, serve as a forceful reminder of the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis. In the works that followed, such as Reserve (exh. Basle, Mus. Gegenwartskst, 1989), Boltanski filled whole rooms and corridors with items of worn clothing as a way of prompting an involuntary association with the clothing depots at concentration camps. As in his previous work, objects thus serve as mute testimony to human experience and suffering.

Andreas Franzke
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press»

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«Christian Boltanski grew up in post World War II France, the son of a refugee Polish Jew and a French Catholic mother. His father, who had spent many years in hiding, taught him to conceal his Jewishness to avoid persecution. Much of Boltanski’s early work reflects his memories of this time. He has also made many series of re-photographed images presumed to be of people who have died, sometimes violently. Photography is always a ‘little death’ in that the moment is captured forever yet the youth and identity of the sitter immediately begins to slip away.1

While the particular images in this installation represent children and the family dog at play, there is a brooding sadness and sense of threat which suggests that fear of loss which accompanies all our joys. The black-and-white photos are taken from, or simulate, old family snaps and sometimes news-paper images. This style is deliberate: the black-and-white prints feel like a literal trace in a way that colour plates and digital images do not. We seem to be able to sense the process embedded in the materiality of the print that is created when light falls onto silver nitrate and changes its chemical structure. In this way the light that ‘touches’ the object also touches the print. Because of this intimate process, the photo of a loved one is more than a likeness; it is a relic of their having once been there in front of the camera. This process is further enhanced by the dim reading lamp which is attached to a frame and by the old biscuit tin below each photo which suggests the collections of memorabilia that most of us have in some cupboard or shed.2 The boxes in this installation contain snapshots of the families represented in the larger photographs. The effect also suggests the use of photos in ‘ex votos’ and memorials to the departed.

In one of these images two boys are at play. One is playing dead, lying on his back in the grass, clad only in swimming briefs; the other, dressed in what could be military shorts and shirt, stoops over him, gun in hand. The time and place are not clear but could easily be wartime Germany. Is this an innocent game or is it a more sinister enactment of SS brutality by Hitler Youth? In another of the images, a German shepherd dog sits with a discarded soft toy while in another the boys are shown in an old-fashioned bath tub. The conjunction of images could convey narratives of domesticity, violence, or latent sexuality but no definitive reading is prescribed.

Boltanski plays upon the ambiguity of photography and memory by presenting these found photo-graphs from family albums or archives. In re-photographing them he further degrades the likeness and enhances the feeling of distance in time from the event. He exploits our predisposition to accept the authenticity of old black-and-white images as actual records of events yet presents them with deliberate theatrical effect. The atmosphere he creates is like that of a shrine in a cathedral or mausoleum, but it does not feel like mock religiosity – it is more personal than that and at the same time has broader cultural associations.

1. This characteristic of photography is brilliantly described in relation to photographs of Roland Barthes’ mother that he discovered after her death. Roland Barthes, ‘Camera lucida’, Richard Howard (trans), Hill and Wang, London 1981
2. Howard 1981

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006»

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About Sónia Pina

Investigadora em Filosofia da Comunicação, New-media, Old-media, Ontologias digitais, Fluxus, Visualismo, Info-estética (protocolos visuais da comunicação), Intermedialidades na arte;

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