BY Hans Ulrich Obrist in Opinion | 22 JUL 21

Hans Ulrich Obrist Remembers Christian Boltanski

The Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries on the brilliance and generosity of the late French artist

BY Hans Ulrich Obrist in Opinion | 22 JUL 21

Christian Boltanski – who died last week in Paris aged 76 – was one of the great artists of our time. His moving, visionary work with sculpture, installation, photography and film always circled around ideas of memory, absence and presence, suffering, mortality and loss, as well as the way in which people connect through their stories and experiences.

An obsession with death is at the heart of Boltanski’s art. ‘I’ve filled my whole life trying to preserve the memory of living, in the fight against dying,’ he told The Believer in 2014. ‘Perhaps the only thing I’ve done, since stopping death is impossible, is to show this fight.’ For the artist, there are extremely few subjects, and it’s clear that death is the subject that’s most shared. In his large-scale, immersive installations, the ephemeral often meets the monumental in a paradoxical play of opposites. Boltanski recognized the exhibition as a public ritual that addresses the individual in relation to the material world. Intimations of renewal and change are among the ways in which his works connect to his recurring themes of death and memory.

Christian Boltanski, Les Linges, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris; photograph: Rebecca Fanuele

Boltanski also embraced chance and transience, often producing countless realizations of the same work so that, in the manner of musical scores, they invited constant reinterpretation. They are attempts to reach limits and to suggest alterations, novelty, change, introductions, departures and variations. He told me once: ‘An artist is someone who has a complete knowledge of the rules of his time and yet manages to get around or modify them.’

Boltanski displayed great generosity to new generations – something I experienced first-hand, when I was 17 and went to see him while on a school trip to Paris. The meeting changed my life. He transformed my view of what an exhibition could be – beyond objects on a museum wall. He told me: ‘We only remember exhibitions that invent a new rule of the game.’ It’s an insight that I think about every day. I went to see him quite regularly after that and, five years later, he gave me the idea of doing an exhibition in an unexpected location – my kitchen. Soon afterwards, we did another show together, this time exhibiting his extraordinary books in the monastery library in St. Gallen, alongside medieval codices. Boltanski was the reason I moved to Paris, where I stayed for the next 15 years. We’d meet in a cafe, have a drink and think about what we could do that had never been done before.

This led to many collaborations, including the exhibition series ‘do it’, which began in 1993, when I was having coffee with Boltanski and the artist Bertrand Lavier at Café Select in Paris. We were discussing how to make exhibitions more open-ended and inclusive. This led to the notion of constructing a show around the concept of do-it-yourself instructions created by artists, which could be interpreted in many different ways over time. We worked with the Association Française d’Action Artistique to translate the first 12 instructions we received into 12 different languages, and then sent a little orange book of them all over the world to different institutions and schools, who could realize and interpret them. From the beginning, the concept was that it would be an open-source project and that people of any age and ability could just ‘do it’. In that sense, it was an invitation to everyone to participate. This small orange booklet was sent to many places and, little by little, ‘do it’ versions started to appear in museums, schools and homes. The exhibition has run continuously since 1993 and has taken place in 170 cities to date.

Christian Boltanski, Subliminal, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris; photograph: Rebecca Fanuele

The next chapter of my collaboration with Boltanski was ‘Take Me (I’m Yours)’, in which gallerygoers to the show are invited to flout convention and do all the things they aren’t normally allowed to do in a museum: the works can be touched, consumed, worn, purchased, taken free of charge or exchanged for personal items. ‘Take Me (I’m Yours)’ was presented for the first time in 1995 at the Serpentine Gallery in London, followed by iterations in Paris, Copenhagen, New York and Buenos Aires.

Boltanski was very aware that art exhibitions are inaccessible to large sections of society, so he always tried to think about other forms of engagement and exhibition models that are more mobile and can be taken to the people. This was one reason why he created hundreds of artist’s books over the years, which was one of the most important aspects of his work. It also led to le point d’ironie, the magazine that we started in 1997 with agnès b.

As Christian told us: ‘Artists’ books have undergone many changes over time. At first, they were extremely precious: you had to wear white gloves to handle them, and they were very expensive. With a new generation of artists like Ed Ruscha and Hans-Peter Feldmann, artists’ books became cheap and infinitely reproducible but were, in fact, printed in runs of 200 to 800 copies. le point d’ironie could have been a series of limited artists’ books, but there came a time when we wanted to go beyond that to reach more people: to go from a few hundred to 100,000 copies. Because the number is so great, it is no longer aimed only at specialized bookshops, or at art lovers, but becomes like a message in a bottle that anyone might find in a cafe or receive through the post. le point d’ironie travels the world and no one knows where it’s going to end up.’ Or, in the words of Robert Musil: ‘Art can appear where we expect it least.’

Main image: Christian Boltanski poses in front of his installation for the 'Monumenta 2010', 2010. Courtesy: Pierre Verdy / Getty Images

Thumbnail: Christian Boltanski, 2010. Courtesy: Didier Plowy and Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris

Hans Ulrich Obrist is artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, London, UK.