Saturday, January 16, 2010

Christian Boltanski, Personnes at the Grand Palais


As we stepped inside the Grand Palais last night, attacked by the deafening and unpredictable noises of what could have been an industrial site in full swing, or the engine room of an old train, James announced, “we are all off to Auschwitz.” And each step we took into the heart of Christian Boltanski’s newly installed edition of the Monumenta series, was like a step further down the ladder into the pit of Dante’s hell.


I am a big Boltanski fan, in fact, I would even go so far as to say I am a follower of his work. I have been touched by it, challenged by it, overwhelmed by it, and have even come away wanting to live inside the worlds he creates. See, for example, my thoughts on El Caso at K21 and Les Archives du Coeur at the Maison Rouge in 2008. Boltanski just about covers and has so often inspired many of my ideas on memory, photography and representations of time, trauma, and the search for individual identity in the midst of such adversary. But Personnes at the Grand Palais is disappointing. My expectations may have been too high, and I do need to go back during the day time, but Boltanski’s three-part installation does not hold the same beauty and depth of his work with photographs, barely functioning light sources, wires and aging archival structures.

The first of the three sections — which did not appear well-integrated — is a wall of rusting biscuit tins, each with a number, each suggesting a secret inside. On entering the Grand Palais, we are confronted with this wall, and have to walk along it and around it to gain entry into the nave proper. The second part is a series of rectangular spaces covered in used clothes, with four steel posts to mark the corners of the rectangle. Harsh fluorescent lights are strung up diagonally and vertically between the posts, and these are the only light source in the Grand Palais. I should add that it is not only dark inside, but by the time I had walked around the wall of biscuit tins, I was freezing. Apparently Boltanski had the central heating turned off to accentuate the alienating darkness of the installation. One advantage of this is that visitors don’t spend a lot of time milling around and so there is plenty of room to be alone with the work. And yet, unlike most installations, I had no desire to be alone with Personnes. The deafening noise which is different people’s heart beats recorded as part of his from the Archives du Coeur project were blaring from speakers attached to the steel posts. These were so loud, hostile, apparently technologized, that immediately, I wanted to get away from them. As James pointed out, the sound is everything we imagine people’s heartbeats not to be. Boltanski’s creations are cold, mechanical, alienating, harsh. As we put our hand on the steel post, we feel the beat of the heart as it ricochets down the post. But again, there’s no desire to hold onto this moment, no sense of an intimacy with the beating heart – the steel post is so cold that I quickly retracted my hands to put it back in my gloves.

Behind all of this is a pile of clothes which the accompanying program likes to Böcklin’s Island of Death (1883). But unlike Böcklin’s painting, there is no light breaking through into Boltanski’s mise-en-scène. It is impossible to look at this pile of clothes without thinking of the piles of confiscated belongings in photographs of the extermination camps. For me, this huge pile with a crane on top was all about death, loss, the absence of hope, humanity, our complete powerlessness in the face of machines, whether of the material kind or that of the totalitarian political variation. If there are memories in the threads of these clothes (as Boltanski is supposed to have claimed) they are so ignored by the crane that picks them up and dumps them dramatically at regular intervals, so drowned out by the deafening heart beats, that we never even come close to perceiving them.

Apparently, Boltanski doesn’t want his work to be seen in relationship to that of other artists. I will let him think that’s a legitimate desire! I couldn’t help seeing Personnes in relationship to Anselm Kiefer’s and Richard Serra’s earlier installations in the Monumenta series. Aside from the fact that it had none of the magic and wonder of Serra’s Promenade, none of the aesthetic challenges and philosophical richness of Kiefer’s Sternfallen, my biggest disappointment was the absence of dialogue between the structure of the Grand Palais and Boltanski’s installation. In fact, Personnes does everything it can to close us off from the wonder and possibility of this magnificent cathedral to early modern architecture and culture. The structure is one of the grandest, most exciting gestures of luminosity and progress along the river Seine. Boltanski’s dark, ice-cold, nightmare makes us feel as though we are trapped in a different world, a world where turn of the century Paris is irrelevant, as though we are likely to be counted among the anonymous lost souls whose identities have no matter in this harsh unforgiving world. Maybe this is just the point?

I have much more to say on the piece, so I shall revisit and see if my thoughts change…

3 comments:

James said...

You comment reminds me of Paul Virilio's lecture "Art and Fear" that I read a few years ago. He critiques modern and contemporary art as an aesthetic so focused on the destruction of the body, which he equates with art's capitulation to science. For Virilio, science has taken over the aesthetics of contemporary art. What does it mean to have the human heart turned into an industrial echo, felt on cold rusty steel? If I felt like we were off to Auschwitz as we walked into Grand Palais, it echoes with what Virilio (a survivor) argues: that so often in the aesthetics of our modern art the Nazi's have won. This may be too harsh a critique, but than again it may not.

Frances Guerin said...

I never read this lecture by Virilio. Are you suggesting that Boltanski's aesthetic has capitulated to the Holocaust - the absolute alienation of the piece as an echo of the Nazi incarceration? I can't remember ever feeling so frightened in an art installation - I read somewhere that Boltanski wasn't interested in giving his viewers anything to look at, but rather, wanted them to inhabit a world. I guess he was successful on that count. But it's a world that is impossible in its echo of the Holocaust -

irina said...

well, you make me wish i could inhabit that space (prepared with hat, gloves, and maybe even a hotpad) for a little while. it sounds quite darkly moving, humbling, quite precisely pointing out that intimacy and comfort with the aesthetic is the privilege of complacent societies and classes. i quite like the metaphor of clothes for how bodies are treated, dumped, instrumentalized, aestheticized, and the heartbeat as industrialized, assembled, painful. i'm in the midst of reading What is the What on growing up in a decade of incomprehensible terror in Sudan, so perhaps my interpretation of your interpretation is inflected by that...

hugs, i