Christian Boltanski: Five key works

·3-min read
Christian Boltanski, one of France's greatest contemporary artists, died on July 14, 2021

Christian Boltanski, one of France's top contemporary artists, was famous for his thought-provocative, monumental installations across the globe, from Paris museums to remote Japanese islands.

After his death at the age of 76, we look at five key works:

- 'The Reserve of Dead Swiss' (1990) -

Forty photographs of faces without names -- the succession of grainy images lined the walls of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Nagoya, Japan, where the exhibition first appeared.

It went on to travel around the world, with the photographs often shown stuck on stacks of rusted tin boxes.

Gleaned by Boltanski from the obituary pages of a provincial Swiss newspaper, none of the people in the photos had been identified, and for the display Boltanski blurred the faces, making features indistinct.

"I suppose part of the work is also about the simple fascination of seeing somebody who is handsome and imagining his ashes," Boltanski said about the work.

- 'Lost: New York Projects' (1995) -

In a series of installations at various venues across New York, Boltanski explored his fascination with the relationship we develop with objects, amassing a vast array of apparently banal items.

In "Lost Property", for example, Boltanski collected about 5,000 pieces from the lost property holding at Grand Central Station and exhibited them in the Incoming Train Room.

In doing so he sought to turn the spotlight on how people invested meaning in material things, and an object that was lost, like a set of house keys, could become hauntingly evocative when on display.

- 'Les Archives du Coeur' (2008) -

On the tiny island of Teshima in Japan, Boltanski installed a permanent exhibition housing the recorded heartbeats of about 60,000 people.

"In all cultures, a heartbeat means to be human, to be alive", Boltanski told Japanese media. "For me it is very important to try to preserve somebody. But I know it is not possible."

Visitors today can leave a recording of their own heartbeat to add to what is an ever-growing archive.

- 'Personnes' (2010) -

Described by The Guardian as Boltanski's "most profound installation yet", visitors to the huge and icy cold hall of the Grand Palais in Paris were faced with great piles of clothes.

The exhibition, a meditation on the Nazi death camps, toured the world and details were different depending on the venue, reflecting a characteristic in Boltanski's shows as live performances.

- 'The Life of C.B.' (2010) -

Not his own work, but a project he consented to, Boltanski was the central character, and would be 24/7 until his death, at the initiative of David Walsh, an Australian art collector.

Walsh approached Boltanski in 2009, proposing to pay him an ongoing monthly fee for the right to film the artist constantly via cameras installed in his Paris studio.

Visitors to Walsh's museum in Tasmania could watch the live feed and the project brought Boltanski mischievous delight, providing another musing on the spectre of death in our lives how we deal with this.

"To die is normal," Boltanski said in 2016. "I love life, but there is no reason to hide the truth: you look at a baby and you know it is going to die."


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