Gaining inspiration from Christian Boltanski & Ilya Kabakov

I have studied these two artists previously as their work has parallels with the quality of outcome I am hoping to attain. They both create immersive temple-like installations that have a spiritual component and their themes are often dark and based on their own memories. I need to dig deeper into what drives these two artists and get a grasp of lies behind their work, hence a selection of video documentaries will be studied and commented on.

The work of Christian Boltanski

Boltanski is a significant French conceptual artist, best known for his photographic installations. Of particular interest to my own work is how he blurs the boundary between truth and fiction as he delves into life, death and memory. He often references the Holocaust but this is quite often a blurred component mashed together with other influences.

In the video above Boltanski talks of the concept of a show being a transient thing, as in it will soon disappear. An exhibition is over in the blink of an eye so how can the artist come to terms with this and what will happen to their legacy after they have gone? The German philosopher Nietzsche offers one way out – the ‘thinker’ fires an arrow that another ‘thinker’ picks up where it has fallen so that he can shoot it somewhere else. This is a licence not to provide all the answers in our work as it is our responsibility to leave work to be done.

Boltanski has fought against the notion of death all his life and he remembers that Napoleon said that “A night of love in Paris will replace everyone.” A shocking yet true statement about the regeneration of life but Boltanski’s work does raise questions about the transience of existence and the relevance of himself in a sea of a continually regurgitating humanity.

Boltanski talks of how there is often a trauma at the beginning of the life of an artist. His own father hid under a floor for a year which he cites as his own trauma. He is not religious (“God doesn’t care about us”) and is more interested in chance and destiny. He says himself that he creates temples but with no answers.

A fascinating aspect of his photographs is that he purposely makes them blurred so people can recognise their own father or mother, or at least someone they knew. Too much realism would leave nothing to the imagination. Is this a perfect realisation of the punctum of Roland Barthes – that indescribable aspect of an image that punctuates the viewer?

I also enjoy how he mixes unlabelled photographs of criminals and victims in one installation to purposefully confuse the spectator. Who is who? Are we in fact all criminals? Or if we remove the crime are we not all the same? A parallel look at events is indeed fascinating to play with the perpetrator and victim scenario.

Boltanski wants people to feel like they are inside something, a labyrinth from which there is no easy escape. As in life, there are many pathways but the right direction to take is never clear. His interest in chance and destiny is being realised here.

In the above clip his approach is one of sheer volume – discarded clothes have a clear Holocaust reference but it is not stated and we do see a recurring feel of abandonment in his work.

Boltanski is also interested in how art can save fragile memories, such as in the quote below where is is giving art permission to play with time and truth:

“Art is a witness to events, possibly even before they actually occur.”

Christian Boltanski

A significant statement is that his work titles are open by intent, they are suggestive and emotive but the viewer completes the work as a good work can never be read a single way. What Boltanski is doing here is giving the viewer permission to complete the work with their own background and memories. In terms of solidifying the experience this is surely one of the powerful tools the artist has to hand.

In the clip above, the narrator states that each one of us is surrounded by a cloud of our dead ancestors. His Shadow Theatres in 1981 cast the shadows of the dead on the walls. This reminds us of a cave painting, which is the earliest known human representation of the dead in art.

This clip also explains how dead anonymous photographs are a common theme in Boltanski’s work. These exhibits make us wonder “What is the fate of each person?” and “Are they alive?” He likes to capture the missing and bring them back into the now. He also has an obsession with unearthing archived work which explains why he finds comfort in basements – the storage area, the underworld, this is often the essence of the installations that he creates.

In the interview above, Boltanski states that he wants people to look at his work “…longer than 4 minutes, as if they are watching the sea.” He aims to create a place of reflection, a Japanese zen garden possibly. He explains how he often imagines spirits dancing around his exhibits as if they were still alive.

A deeper aspect to this is that he aims to make his work live on through the knowledge of the work not the object. He explains that the specific images he uses are not sacred – the same piece could be done in 30 years and create the same knowledge.

The work of Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Ilya was born in Ukraine in 1933, which was when Stalinism hit soviet society. He has collaborated with this partner Emilia for many years on paintings and installations that evaluate and probe the differences and similarities between Soviet culture and capitalism, as they relate to his memories and notions of utopia.

In the clip above we learn that one of Kabakov’s weapons against oppression is humour. Often the art of people who live with deprivation, and with persecution, isn’t funny at all. But Ilya is very funny. He uses a clever mix of intertwined humorous expression and tentative embrace. We are left wondering where the joke lies which I believe is a powerful way to employ humour in art.

In the interview above, Ilya and Emilia explain that their installations are based on the understanding that “Art is another world, one must leave one’s body and mentality to appreciate it.” There are parallels with Boltanski here in how he creates temples for his work.

Ilya explains that the labyrinth is a well known metaphor for life and a piece about his mother’s life was a labyrinth – yes, you can explore but you will never be able to understand it completely.

He purposely makes his work so that the viewer cannot see everything that is there, just as in life, it’s impossible to understand everything that is going on. Again this is also a core basis for Boltanski’s work.

In the interview above, Ilya explains that his installations come from a different conception. He wants the viewer to be a protagonist not a passive viewer. So as you walk into his installations you feel as if you’re in an Egyptian tomb, you feel what went on before you were there and you affect the environment by being participant and observer. Once again, this is Boltanski’s methodology coming through.

Kabakov’s work has a haunting sense of everything that has been left over from a failed dream. There are often characters who are searching for transcendence, so we see angels and people making ladders to reach the heavens. As with his use of humour we see a metaphysical longing and despair at the same time.

Everything he does is about fear and suffering, trying to understand and eliminate them. They try to make people understand that there is nothing to be afraid of. His art does not need language and can transcend all cultures.

Summary & next steps

Both Boltanski and Kabakov are masters of the spiritual installation and give the viewer other worldly places to contemplate life, death, memory and truth. I’ve jotted some aspects of their work below that I feel relevant to my own progress:

  • The installation as shrine – both artists reference how they aim to give the viewer a spiritual experience but significantly this is done in an agnostic way. My own consideration of an enclosed installation space to reflect the long term impact of a traumatic experience sits with this idea very well. I too want to create a place of quiet reflection where a viewer can linger long enough to regurgitate their own memories by filling in the gaps of what I have provided. Whether this should be a shrine or labyrinth is to be decided. I probably lean to the idea of a labyrinth (with dark and unexplained corners) as it resonates with the idea of fate, partitioned memories and forgotten truths.
  • Adding the punctum – Boltanksi blurs his imagery to give the viewer permission to add their own ancestry. This resonated deeply and does consolidate the two tone ink drawing that I’ve been experimenting with. I feel the level of detail in these drawings could be carefully managed to create ‘generic ancestors’ and hopefully light the fire of punctum in a viewer.
  • Liquidising truth and fiction – Kabakov minces up the truth and myth through his deep sense of subversive humour. I’ve been experimenting with non-verbal humour in my drawing and this has given me confidence to proceed. The challenge is to find that pinch point of humorous expression and tentative embrace that puts the viewer in the driving seat in terms of interpretation.

I feel that my research and experiments to date have consolidated a solid path forwards. With 6 weeks remaining until delivery of the final outcome, the time has come to bring all work together and move towards an exhibit. So the next steps are to use all inspiration to sketch a potential set of ink drawing that fit the bill and also to mock up a potential installation space.

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