Viewing room
Christian Boltanski

Portraits

Christian Boltanski

Parallel to the large installation ‘Danach’ which encompasses the entire Berlin gallery space, this viewing room dedicated to Christian Boltanski focuses on his approach to photography. Boltanski is known for his use of black-and-white pictures sourced from obituaries, family albums or flea markets. Often enlarged to become ghostly faces, these anonymous portraits evoke the memories of lost lives and bring us back to our own mortality. But Boltanski’s photographs do not only conjure up grief and sorrow; while reaching deep feelings throughout our collective memory, they betray the artist’s constantly renewed faith in the human spirit.

Exhibition view, Christian Boltanski, "Leçons de ténèbres", Salpêtrière Chapel, Paris, 1986

Exhibition view, Christian Boltanski, 'Leçons de ténèbres', Salpêtrière Chapel, Paris, 1986 © Christian Boltanski, courtesy Festival d'Automne, Paris, photo Ernt Jank

Boltanski’s celebrated ‘Monuments’ series crystallizes several core themes at play in his oeuvre. Sacrality, remembrance and childhood translate into altars that transform the exhibition space into a spiritual sanctuary. The series stems from ‘La Composition Occidentale’ (1980) – exhibited in 1984 at Centre Pompidou, Paris – in which small photographs of Christmas ornaments affixed to the wall in the shape of a Christmas tree are lit by small electric lights.

Based on a similar composition, the ‘Monuments’ consist of framed photographs of children's faces mounted on the wall like tiles that converge in a pyramid shape punctuated by simple light bulbs with visible wiring. Through their enlargement and the change in contrast values, the images are reminiscent of newspaper obituaries. These contemplative memorials – the largest exhibition of which was held in 1986 in the Salpêtrière Chapel, Paris – stand for the importance of our collective memory and open up a space of remembrance.

Exhibition view, Christian Boltanski, "Leçons de ténèbres", Salpêtrière Chapel, Paris, 1986

Exhibition view, Christian Boltanski, 'Leçons de ténèbres', Salpêtrière Chapel, Paris, 1986 © Christian Boltanski, courtesy Festival d'Automne, Paris, photo Ernt Jank

Christian Boltanski, "Petit Monument", 2011 (detail)

Christian Boltanski, 'Petit Monument', 2011 (detail) © Christian Boltanski, photo Simon Vogel

Contrasting with traditional memorials carved in stone, Boltanski’s monuments are crafted from everyday objects scattered across his studio and include glass, adhesive tape, light bulbs and cables. The lightness of his materials alludes to the fragility of memories which only exist as long as one remembers them. Characteristic of Boltanski’s aesthetics since his 1969 exhibition at Daniel Templon Gallery in Paris, a rusted biscuit box appears in ‘Petit Monument Odessa’ (1990); this ambivalent container evokes both childhood memories and a funerary urn, two leitmotivs at the core of the artist’s approach.

Christian Boltanski, "Petit Monument Odessa", 1990 © Christian Boltanski

Christian Boltanski, 'Petit Monument Odessa', 1990 © Christian Boltanski

We all die twice – once when we actually die and once when no one on earth recognizes our photograph.

- Christian Boltanski

Boltanski has been keeping traces of the past since the 1960s, building collections that shape his oeuvre through large installations that compile names, clothes or portraits. Celebrating the memories of the departed, his photographic body of work can be seen as a visual archive of humanity that echoes his ‘Archives du Coeur’. For this ongoing project started in 2008, he records heartbeats of volunteers to later store them on the Naoshima Island in Japan, recalling the lives of the recorded who will one day all be gone. Boltanski’s oeuvre is a tribute to the past, from which only records remain.

Christian Boltanski, "L'Album photographique de la famille de B", 1991

Christian Boltanski, 'L'Album photographique de la famille de B', 1991 (detail) © Christian Boltanski

‘L’Album photographique de la famille de B.’ consists of enlarged photographs from a family album found at a flea market. First looking for singularities, Boltanski reconstructed its chronological sequence only to find out that this album looks like any family album. The simplicity and everyday nature of these images reveal how our existences are made of ordinary moments; an entire life of mundane sequences that the artist aims at preserving.

We don't learn anything about family life for twenty-five years, these images of family rituals bring us back to our own memories, to ourselves, all the family albums, inside of a given society, are almost identical, they do not represent the reality, but the reality of the family album.

- Christian Boltanski

The portraits constituting ‘Les Suisses Morts’ were appropriated by Boltanski from obituaries published in Le ‘Nouvelliste du Valais’, a provincial Swiss newspaper. He compiled these clippings over a year, then re-photographed and enlarged the already grainy images. The identity of the subjects is obliterated by the blurry quality of the prints and the removal of any memorial text from the obituary, while the repetitive arrangement of identical elements suggests that the installation is part of an almost infinite archive; Boltanski has indeed produced a number of works bearing variations on the same title with many similar components, where the photographs are either mounted on the wall, on shelves, on tin boxes or on clothes.

Christian Boltanski, "Les Suisses morts", 1989

Christian Boltanski, 'Les Suisses morts', 1989, exhibition view of 'The Art of Photography', Royal Academy of Art, London, 1989 © Christian Boltanski

Christian Boltanski, "La Réserve des Suisses morts", 1990

Christian Boltanski, 'La Réserve des Suisses morts', 1990, exhibition view of 'Faire son temps', Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2019 © Christian Boltanski, courtesy Centre Pompidou, photo Philippe Migeat

There is nothing more normal than a Swiss person. And therefore there is no reason for a Swiss person to die, so all these dead people are only all the more terrifying. They are us.

- Christian Boltanski
Christian Boltanski, 'Chance', French Pavilion, Venice Biennale. 2011
Play

In Boltanski’s vision the departed not only embody loss, their tragic destiny also stands for fate in a wider sense. At the 2011 Venice Biennale he proposed ‘Chance’ for the French Pavilion. Infused with a joyful optimism, the installation – based on photographs of new-borns – focuses on the existential dualism between determinism and free will. Hundreds of baby portraits are printed on a large moving walkway that runs at high speed throughout the building. Every eight minutes the film stops on the face of a baby, asking whether they will follow a predetermined path or rule their own lives.

Christian Boltanski (*1944) lives and works in Malakoff near Paris. He is one of the most well-known artists of our time, whose work has been recognised internationally with the Praemium Imperiale (2006) and in comprehensive retrospectives, most recently at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2019–20). His works are part of institutional collections, such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; ARCO Foundation Collection, Madrid; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Hara Museum, Tokyo; Hamburger Kunsthalle; Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz; MuHKA – Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp, and many more.

Works

Monument Collège d'Hulst
Les Suisses Morts
Portraits - Grosse Hamburger Strasse
Monument

Christian Boltanski

Les Suisses Morts
Les Suisses Morts
Les Suisses Morts
Les Suisses Morts, 1989
352 b/w photographs, lamps and cables
Each photograph 30 x 24 cm; installation: 330 x 768 cm