Fragile Time: Talking About Death with Christian Boltanski

In the latest installment of his ongoing work “Animitas”, French sculptor Christian Boltanski is contemplating universality.

CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI, Portrait at Espace Louis Vuitton Munchen, 2017

Christian Boltanski spends a lot of his time thinking about death, otherwise conceived in his oeuvre as the period between departure and arrival. His recent addition to his “Animitas” series is a good example. Shown at the Espace Louis Vuitton gallery in Munich, it features two videos from the artist’s trip to Chile’s Atacama desert, where he installed 800 Japanese bells on wire stalks, each bearing a Haiku – an exercise he repeated in Canada, Japan and Israel. These works are, however, not designed to be experienced. All that remains of them is a 20 minute video loop installed within a patch of dried vegetation (an allusion to Chile) and scrunched up sheets of A4 paper (a reference Canada’s snowy plains). With the words “Arrivée” and “Depart” visible above in marquee lights, the effect is somewhat akin to Francophone existentialist theatre. Indeed, the title of the series is a Chilean term referring to small shrines at the roadsides used to commemorate the dead. Ahead of the opening of this exhibition, the artist spoke to SLEEK about his idea of art as a musical score, and why he would rather be remembered as a legend than for his artwork.

ARRIVÉE, 2016, Exhibition View / Espace, Louis Vuitton Munchen.

Why have you chosen to combine the new pieces in your “Animitas” with text?

All life is “depart et arrive”, and the “Animitas” videos are what comes after [them].

How did you chose the locations for these works?

I always wanted to use places nobody could find, the idea being the artwork itself will disappear after a while, from the wind, or the snow. I just finished the last one at the Dead Sea, which is also going to be destroyed very quickly. However, in [the iteration in] Japan, on the isle of Teshima, it was different. People can buy a bell for a low price and inscribe [on it] the name of someone. It becomes a memorial.

Are you attempting to posit a universal concept of dying through this, a contemporary Vanitas?

It’s a universal thing to die. For me, what is important is who makes the piece. The meaning is different for [everyone]. [But yes], I am working with the concept of Vanitas, such as in “The Reserve of the Dead Swiss” [Ed: the sculptor’s installation of obituary photos from the regional Swiss newspaper Le Nouvelliste du Valais]. The Swiss have no reason to die. They are rich. Everything is vanitas, why I’m here, when I’m going to speak. That is vanitas. If you ask me what country I come from I say “art”, and I think that most people are thinking about the same thing [but] they don’t speak the same language. [W]hat they are looking for is what is the same in each country. They are looking for a god and they are looking for understanding.

How did you arrive at this position? It is starkly contrasted with the general attitude of contemporary art, which often seems defined with specific cultural identities.

To have truth, we must have a dream identity. My dream identity is between the White Sea and the Black Sea. I think in the mind there is also some ancestral knowledge. Do you know the saying “In the eyes of the great grandmother”? [It means] you know something by your great grandmother, something very mixed, something not precise, but [which could be described as] some kind of identity – a mixed Identity.

ANIMITAS (BLANC) Île d’Orléans, Canada, 2017, exhibition view / Espace Louis Vuitton Munchen.

You have said that your work is like a musical score. How?

Two years ago I sold a very large piece to a Belgian Museum, and I gave them nothing, but the right to play the piece again one day. So it’s like a score.

You are said to have a complicated relationship with museums. Are your works meant to be public?

In Berlin, I didn’t want to make permanent monuments, it happened only by chance. [Ed: In 2013, he created “The Missing House” in the German capital, an outdoor installation concerning a dwelling destroyed in 1943.] For “Animitas” I built a little building with a Chilean architect just outside in Paris, showing a projection of the work. The modern life is so active you need to sit sometime, to look, to think. Ideally, I’d like the works not to be in a gallery or museum, but in the square, in the garden, to have some kind of little pavilion, you sit and you look. It’s public. For example, in Teshima most of the people who go there don’t know me and they don’t know [my] work. I try to create places that are more like a place of leisure.

Why have you chosen to install your latest exhibition in Espace?

It’s like the idea of a little chapel. It’s not only a video, it’s ambiance. It’s difficult to do that here, but [I’ve tried] to make some kind of home that somebody can stand [in], sit [on]. Everyone can look at “Animitas” and think something. It’s not a question [of whether] it’s a beautiful piece of art or not, but we can think something. That’s what I tried to do in my last piece, in Patagonia, where I installed large trumpets that make sounds like whale songs. I turned the work in to a ten hour film. No one will find the trumpets, they’re installed on a 100,000 acre farm.

And why do you choose such remote locations?

What I want is to create a legend. I hope in a few years, when I shall be dead, somebody will not remember my name, but will say, “He was crazy man that tried to speak with the whales”. I think the legend is stronger than the art work.

DEPART, 2016, Exhibition View / Espace Louis Vuitton Munchen. 

All images courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery © Christian Kain /Louis Vuitton

Jeni Fulton

Jeni Fulton

– Dr. des. Jeni Fulton is Sleek’s Editor in Chief. She holds a degree in Philosophy from the University of Cambridge, and a PhD on the subject of Value and Evaluation in Contemporary Art from the Humboldt University, Berlin. Her PhD examines how economic assessments of value interact with sociological and critical assessment in the field of contemporary art. She has contributed to Frieze, Spike and Apollo among many publications, and regularly lectures on art economics, art criticism and the contemporary art sphere.

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