Christian Boltanski: Five key works

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Paris (AFP)

Christian Boltanski, one of France’s foremost contemporary artists, was famous for his provocative monumental installations across the world, from Parisian museums to isolated Japanese islands.

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

– ‘The Swiss Dead Reserve’ (1990) –

Forty photographs of unnamed faces – the succession of grainy images lined the walls of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Nagoya, Japan, where the exhibition first premiered.

He then toured the world, the photographs often shown glued to piles of rusty tin cans.

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

“I guess part of the work is also about the simple fascination of seeing someone beautiful and imagining their ashes,” Boltanski said of the work.

– ‘Lost: New York Projects’ (1995) –

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

In “Lost Property”, for example, Boltanski collected around 5,000 pieces of the lost items held at Grand Central Station and displayed them in the hall of the incoming train.

In doing so, he sought to shed light on how people invest meaning in material things, and a lost item, like a set of house keys, can become hauntingly evocative when on display.

– ‘The Archives of the Heart’ (2008) –

On the small island of Teshima in Japan, Boltanski has set up a permanent exhibit housing the recorded heartbeats of around 60,000 people.

“In all cultures, a heartbeat means human being, being alive,” Boltanski told Japanese media. “For me, it’s very important to try to save someone. But I know it’s not possible.”

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

– ‘People’ (2010) –

Described by The Guardian as “Boltanski’s deepest installation to date,” visitors to the huge and icy hall of the Grand Palais in Paris were confronted with large piles of clothing.

The exhibit, a meditation on the Nazi death camps, toured the world and the details were different depending on the location, reflecting a characteristic of Boltanski’s shows as live performances.

– ‘The life of CB’ (2010) –

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

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

Visitors to the Walsh Museum in Tasmania could watch the live stream and the project brought mischievous fun to Boltanski, offering another reflection on the specter of death in our lives, how we deal with this.

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

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