My favorite room in the K21 Kunstsammlung, Düsseldorf: Christian Boltanski’s haunting El Caso (1988). Three walls are filled with portrait photographs of people reported in the Madrid newspaper of the same name to have been murdered. Each photographed face is blown up to a blurred portrait in characteristic Boltanski style. A desk light, complete with leads shines directly onto the image making it even more difficult to look at, and even more impossible to identify the face. As is often the case with Bolantski’s photographs, not seeing is tbeir power. It is not the identity of the person photographed that is important, what matters is that they have been murdered. The obscurity of each individual’s features is the photograph’s reach for generality. In a biscuit tin beneath each photograph Boltanski has apparently placed an image of the murdered corpse or the scene of the crime. [These photographs have, in turn, been collected into an artist’s book of limited edition]. The blurb at the entrance to the room informs us that the photographs we cannot see are taken by police at the scene of the crime. Not seeing is, once again, the force of these images: because we cannot see the corpse in the box, our imaginations run wild and there is never a doubt that it is hidden because the body is too mutilated, too deformed to bear. And yet, we don’t need to see, because we are certain that the photograph above the tin is the face of the one who the body belongs to. Thus, the face we cannot fully recognize is all we need to see. This refusal on Boltanski’s part to reveal the identity of the person in the blurred photograph, under the desk light, in the tin box is what make each “memorial” disturbing. Each face is like a spectre come back to life – having exceeded the limits of the tin in which it supposedly belongs. They are spirits that won’t die or disappear, they won’t be shut up in the tin, that persist in coming back to haunt the museum spectator. This imagined presence on the walls of the K21 gives these faces a relevance to our own indulgent lives, it forces us to confront ourselves and our need to mourn the dead we never knew. Connected to each other by the leads of the lights that obscure them, the faces demand we too pick up the thread and become involved in their stories.
One wall of the room is filled with linen sheets, neatly packed, cleaned but not ironed and placed on a shelf. With the absence of a visible human connection to the sheets, we immediately begin to imagine the people who they once covered. And of course we connect them to the faces in the photographs. Were they the sheets that covered the corpse in the morgue? Or perhaps the sheets that were used as shrouds for burial? It’s unclear, but we are struck by the fact that the people who once used these sheets no longer need them. And we assume, they are no longer with us. Again, the tactile presence of the absence of the murdered enfolds us in their cry for remembrance and recognition.
Counterposed with the trauma and truth that we experience in the midst of the installation, is another familiar Boltanski concern: that of the archive. In El Caso the exhibition of the photographs and what we assume to be the photographed remains of their corpses communicates the filing away of information as is the wont of police in murder investigations. It’s material to which we, the public, ordinarily have no access. Thus, through the complex interaction of portraits we cannot see, lights, leads, tin boxes and mysterious sheets, Boltanski offers us an imaginative access that potentially undoes the rationalization of the authorities’ archive. We may not see clearly what the authorities hide, and the press sensationalizes, but Boltanski invites us to animate and envision through imagination. In turn, our vision creates our responsibility for the memory of those who have been murdered. Because the images are made public for us: the police, the newspaper, the morticians, even Boltanski the artist, have left the installation. In their wake they have left an environment into which we step, an environment that surrounds us with, makes us responsible for the past, its injustice, for murder, and its motives, and the memory of each.