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Research: Christian Boltanski, the master of memories

I have looked at the work of Christian Boltanski in the recent past but like the previous project, this one also has a memory theme and Boltanski is the master of creating “shrines to the past” in his work so he deserves a second look. My renewed interest is how Boltanski avoids his work being neatly labelled or categorised, but rather, he allows it to create its own visceral, emotional, and psychological reactions. This is the final piece of the jigsaw for my own outcome.

For the huge installation below, which he called Personnes for Monumenta, he put together a 50-tonne mountain of clothes, and the sound of 15,000 heartbeats. As so often in his work, his medium is the human trace and he deals in traces rather than ghosts, with shadows and lists, ­photographs of the dead and as here, piles of old clothes. His art, ultimately, is a ­memorial to nothing, to everyone and no one. Additionally, in this installation he wanted the clothes to smell and the experience to be cold (Paris’ Grand Palais would have ensured that), which are both touching other senses and no doubt creating an even more chilling experience.

Personnes for Monumenta by Christian Boltanski, 2010

What is enlightening here is how again and again Boltanski uses objects which represent the subject, which is itself missing. We the viewer are left to imagine the past, be that a genocide, deportation or huge ancestral past.

Boltanski has stated that he doesn’t necessarily want his audiences to leave saying that they like is art or not. He would rather them say, “I don’t know if it’s art or not art, but I’m really touched” and I think that is the case with this installation. I can imagine walking amongst these piles of clothes being an experience akin to when I visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. From the outside we see something impressive in scale but we are removed from it. When we enter into it, it envelops us, it over powers us, we get disorientated and we feel part of the past.

My own outcome has nothing like the scale of Boltanski’s work but it has made me fully aware of how powerful scale can be in quashing the human viewer into an uncomfortable observer. This study has made me consider how my suitcases could either envelop the viewer at best or create a level of discomfort at worst. My language and clothing are also mediums of trace and extending these traces into the viewer’s comfort zone is intriguing.

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