In keeping with his reputation as a bit of a conceptual con-man, Parisian artist Christian Boltanski is most often to be found working in the dark alleys of uncertainty that separate reality from image, in the shadows that fall between what individuals and objects are and what they appear to be. That he's frequently chosen photography (though rarely as a photographer, per se) as a vehicle for his own brand of interpretive shell-game isn't surprising. The kind of hermeneutic Puzzles generated by his trademark archival photo collections and installations, which often take the form of complex documentary or sculptural meditations on identity and death, draw ambient energy from photography's supreme contextual slipperiness, from its status as the most superficially trusted yet ultimately least trustworthy visual medium.
This conceptually profitable paradox has repeatedly been accomplice to Boltanski sleight-of-hand with histories and identities, warping and reconstituting his own, and those of other individuals. But while the same kind of tensions are evident in this show, the more modest works here offer a glimpse at what first appears to be a rather different side to the artist. Works from the 70s feature a range of what might be charitably be called dull subjects: stupefyingly bland holiday snaps, virtually indistinguishable flower plots, rather too deliberate arrangements of toys, dolls and preternaturally glistening food. These pieces tend to lull the viewer into complacency. But the more time one spends with the work, the more one begins to feel knocked off balance. It is, in contrast to some of Boltanski's more emotionally charged installations, not the mystery but the very normality of these works which ultimately begins to raise suspicions, culminating in a crashing wave of doubt about our ability to read any of the show's images with a sense of interpretive assurance.
This is, of course, a case of Boltanski having us right where he wants us. Do the photo arrangements celebrate some quiet poetry of the mundane or simply offer it as the object of parody? Is the work so seemingly guileless because of some subtle, inherent grace the artist sees in his subjects, or is it just the straight man in some dead-pan gag played out at the expense of the viewer's postmodern sensibilities? It is this sense of disorientation, this collision between what we see and what we think we should be seeing which frees Boltanski's pieces to play their sly havoc, working on and against our expectations not only of them, but of contemporary artworks in general, challenging the visual prejudices which shape our appraisals of both art and artlessness.
The sense of uncertainty that bubbles beneath the static surfaces of all Boltanski's production is continued with his most recent project - a kind of transfigurational scam, conceptually typical in the artist's work, but here undertaken by him not just in concept, but in actual fact. Not content to scavenge simply for the artefacts of others' identities, Boltanski has taken on an alternative identity to facilitate his search for new material: school portrait photographer. Shooting the youngsters of the North Westminster Community School, which lies just across the road from the gallery, Boltanski has found a subject and a format which, despite (or perhaps precisely because of) its ubiquity, manages to summarise a number of his most cherished conceptual pursuits in one neatly combed and suit-jacketed package.
Boltanski has been down this road before - his Les Enfants de Berlin (1975) is included in the Lisson show and the 35 small faces, each staring out of their own private pictorial box, demonstrates both the quiet poetry and sense of vague menace to be found in the systemisation of simple portrait photos. But the Westminster pictures - shown concurrently at the school and available to parents just like your basic school photographs, which is precisely what they are - up the conceptual ante in a number of intriguing ways. Issues of mortality and personal identity may at first seem a world away from the fresh countenances of the school kids, but in fact are absolutely central here. The across-the-board neutrality of their school outfits provides a sense of literal and figurative 'uniformity' echoed in the formal precision of the 144 small rectangular images, but accentuates, rather than masks, the differences between the young boys and girls. The human panorama Boltanski presents ranges far and wide, and broadens the more time one spends before it: brown next to white next to black skin, cleaned and scrubbed or fighting a losing battle against the ravages of puberty; relaxed smiles and nervous shrugs; straight white teeth and orthodontic construction zones; eyes shining with hope, brows wrinkled with impatience.
The simple success of this approach lies in its staking out space for the viewer's imagination, utilising equally photography's strengths and weaknesses - its ability to engender speculation about what lies behind and ahead of these children, even as it is inexorably frozen in the moment of that flash of light on the figure seated before the dark backdrop. In the end the real trick of these images is not what they tell us, but what they let us tell ourselves. Like the parents who will paste Boltanski's school pictures into a family scrapbook, we invest the space between the idealised image and the realities of life with our own hopes and fears for the future.