French artist Christian Boltanski was in Japan. Meeting two Japanese critics, he suddenly noticed that one was staring at him, as if to size him up from head to toe. ‘The other, his friend, said not to worry, he just wants to look at you because he has never seen Jewish people in his life before. I said hey, that's fine, but maybe I'm not the best example because I'm not Jewish!’
Fame makes you public property. When American writer Michael Lesy wrote Wisconcin Death Trip in the 70s, he found that the book ‘took on a life of his own. Those who read it couldn't decide if it was poetry or history, a fabrication or a discourse, a hoax or a revelation ... necrophiliacs wrote me letters ... artists, especially photographers, claimed I was one of them ...’
The week I interview Christian Boltanski I’m reading another book by Lesy. Called ‘The Forbidden Zone’, it takes the form of interviews with people who work with death on a daily basis; embalmers, detectives, mercenaries, hospice workers and Shochets, the ritual animal slaughterers of Orthodox Jewry. Lesy is looking for information, to find out what working with death can tell the living, but what he finds is a curious absence. Policemen pass him up to detectives, pathologists shrug him off onto oncologists: Lesy concludes that ‘the worms would probably tell me to ask God’.
Boltanski’s work is popularly supposed to deal with recent European history, with memory, and most particularly, death: in fact his real subject is the absence of all these things. Born in 1944 (though not, as some reports apocryphally have it, the day the war ended), his father was a Jew who converted to Catholicism, his mother unknown. Further biographical detail is probably irrelevant and certainly suspect given that fiction, artifice and manipulation are the very stuff of Boltanski’s art. Early work found roots in the anti-art tradition of Beuys and Arte Povera and reflected the cultural uncertainty and questionings of post-68 France: paradoxically Boltanski’s work is also underpinned by a consistent formal rigour that owes as much to classicists like Donald Judd or Eva Hesse as to the art-outsider attitudes of the time.
In early Childhood Albums the artist mixed in his own image with found photos of unknown children. There are various pseudo-ethnological inventories of totemic objects; and the mailing of a handwritten plea for help cum suicide note to variously arbitrarily chosen addresses. More recently a series of larger installation pieces used photographs, old clothes and ephemera serialised and stored in tin boxes. They seem to imply memento mori, but on further investigation reveal themselves as fictions. As a random example, in Les Enfants de Dijon (1985), a vast wall of blurred and funereally lit photographs of children implied a story of wartime extradition but in fact were photos of a class from a Dijon school, each re-photographed for further age-aestheticised effect. (The bodes, meanwhile, so redolent of attics, schoolrooms, fragile pre-computer repositories of memory are in fact made up by the artist.) ‘I am working with the idea of fragility and disappearance’, Boltanski has said, ‘[...] so if my work is about childhood, for example, it is not because I am interested in childhood, it is because that is the first part of us that is dead, we are dead children.’
After a 1990 show at the Whitechapel, his first solo showing in the UK, Boltanski was back in London this spring for the opening of a new work at the Lisson gallery. Conversation Piece was built from a collection of German family album snaps, late 30s to early 50s, found in a flea market in Berlin. Lit up by anglepoise lamps trailing long tails of flex, the easy melancholia induced by these huge enlargements was countered by daylight flooding down from the Lisson skylight. Two German soldiers on wartime leave, a dog, a swan, family groups, laughing: the installation, with the two light sources, had something of the tawdry strangeness of street lamps lit at noon. Or the child’s-eye view, the morning after a nightmare, of familiar objects at once reassuringly banal but still tinged with night-time threat.
‘The first thing that occurred to me was how if you have a photo of a German soldier in an album the whole album becomes a little bit strange. But it's not only about Germany, we all have something a little bit strange in our album, something we want to hide. All albums have good and bad in them.’
It's different from the Whitechapel piece, less overtly manipulative.
‘I wanted to do something more dry, minimal. The piece with the photos altogether is a sentimental piece, because they are altogether, because it's alive. But if you take one of these photos on their own, – the swan, the dog, so stupid – it's nothing, it becomes something dead. For the father of this little boy, the photograph was very important. For us it's nothing.’
And yet we make up an imaginary narrative.
‘Yes. I was saying that though you may not know these people, you know something about yourself. Photos in all albums are nearly always the same, specially from the same generation. Change the faces, and ... most albums are the same, when you look at the photos, they work like a kind of stimulus to send you back to your own time.’
The installation is so beautiful; too beautiful? Boltanski can, and has been charged with noir attitudinising. ‘[His] method avoids politics, it avoids hard questions. It turns history into myth ...’, wrote Art In America. All of which might be more or less valid depending on where you're coming from.
The Japanese are big fans, recognising a variety of formal antecedents where Europe reads only its own past. 'The idea of vanitas is very Japanese, you know, the beautiful girl with the skeleton' says Boltanski, remembering with some glee how the genealogically curious Japanese critic had also wondered about possible Japanese blood in the family Boltanski. And some of his more notorious exploits – for Parkett he made a pocket book of newspaper images of murder victims, an earlier installation mixed images of murderers and victims from the crime magazine Detective – as well as his project as a whole sits curiously well in a Japanese context. Think of the dual strands of violence and sentiment, purity and pornography in Japanese culture, but also historical buildings razed and rebuilt in exact replication.
Boltanski is currently working on another book project, (‘I have all these photos of an SS man at Christmas time, at home with his fiancé, underneath the Christmas tree ...’) and thinking about colour. ‘It's not so useful to use black and white photos anymore. Art is always black and white, but coloured photos are so much more stupid. They're not artistic – people think of colour as so normal and useful, whereas Art is always black and white.’ He is curious about the notorious ‘Murder Casebook’ series, those cod-scientific collect-and-keep murder picture books, and the way that, like porn, they run on an invisible circulation.
Death, loss, sex – and sentiment. In my dictionary sentiment is defined as: ‘1. Whole body of feelings constantly entertained by a person towards some particular ideal, institution etc. ... 2. (in derogatory sense) maudlin, ill-directed emotion.’ Which just happens to say quite a lot about the contradictions and fertile ambivalences that inform Christian Boltanski’s work.