Review by Paul McNally
In one of the five essays contained in Christian Boltanski the artist tells Tamar Garb of a time when the Tate Gallery bought one work Dead Swiss on shelves with white cotton. The curator noted that the cotton would fade in a few years and asked could they replace it when this happened. Boltanski readily agreed. The curator also mentioned that if the shelves in the piece could be made shorter they would fit in the room at the Tate; again Boltanski agreed. Finally the curator asked if the photographs could be replaced if they faded, which was no problem for Boltanski. The curator then asked what exactly had the Tate bought? Boltanski replied "an idea not an object".
The book quotes many of the artist's anecdotes as a way to give greater insight into Christian Boltanski the man (as opposed to the artist) and to explain how one inevitably followed the other. The background to the work and man is provided by essays from Didier Semin, Donald Kuspit and Tamar Garb. There is also a selection (or Artist's choice) from the author Georges Perec and a selection of artist's writings including 1990's what they remember, a work about the artist through the eyes of those who grew up with him.
The book is part monograph and part life study and is intended to be a definitive guide to Boltanski's career. The essays are informative and the book is extremely well illustrated.
Boltanski chooses certain objects that people have once possessed and tries to establish a link between their owner and their history; clothes, containers, vitrines and photographs generally suit his purpose. Boltanski started by making large religious paintings (none of which are reproduced here) later switching media to installational works which included pulp murder styled magazines (El Casa) and photographic reconstructions of his own life.
The use of photography here is not concerned with questions into the aesthetic quality of artistic excellence but with the banal reproducibility and multiplicity of photography and importantly of the multiplicity (and regeneration) of human life and death. Boltanski claims not to be a photographer but "more a recycler". The photographs he uses are always portraits of unidentifiable people, his most impressive work is Reserve: Dead Swiss. He made none of the photographs himself, nor did he have any personal knowledge of the people involved or even any particular interest in the Swiss or Switzerland. The photographs were all sent to Boltanski by people interested in what he was doing, receiving around 60-70 photographs a week of indistinguishable dead Swiss a week. However the photographs, seen collectively, take on a monumental or cenotaph-like effect, with enscripted names replaced by hundreds of faces, taking away the individual solemnity in death and placing them in the collective of 'Dead Swiss.'
Comic Sketches: Grandfathers Death (1974) uses coloured crayons to decorate four black and white photographs, making a naive painting where the artist plays all the characters. Unusually all are constructed for or by the artist and stranger still is their illustration of the comic element in Boltanski's attitude to a subject which is generally regarded as being morose.
Although Boltanski is Jewish, the imagery in Grandfathers death is extremely Christian, with crucifixes throughout the four pictures. Boltanski poses as a priest, a dead man and a mourning widow. Boltanski explains that there is an allure, a zeal in Christianity that Judaism does not possess, "The Jews never had an inquisition to convert people to Judaism. What is so beautiful and simultaneously dangerous about Christianity is that Christians want to convert everyone to their faith". Boltanski continually reinvents his own Autobiography for his work and thus the amount of anecdotes present start to ring a warning bell. Boltanski's statements can be glib and deliberately misleading. For example, it is more accurate to say that Christianity is interesting to him because Christians have a notion of an afterlife and Heaven which Jews do not, similarly he claims he chose the Swiss because they have "...no reason to die". Which is a truly strange remark. A further explanation may be that the Swiss have less history in the Holocaust than Germans or Jews, but Boltanski hints that his choice was intended simply to puzzle people. But in the end (after death) their category (their Nationality) means nothing and all that is left are relics like photographs, clothes and citizenship.
The constant attempts by the essayists to explain what Boltanski is doing in a rational world where mourning and loss cannot be quantified sometimes appear wasted energy as the work does it more succinctly than the essays. It is nonetheless an excellent book for an excellent artist.