CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI ::
A CHEERFUL CONVERSATION
More than a studio visit, a cheerful conversation
We had a long and amusing conversation with the artist who represented France at the 54th International Art Exhibition of Venice. A few years after our visit to Annette Messager – whom we interviewed for our Love issue -, we go back to Malakoff to meet him at his studio. The visiting Dromers are immediately caught by the webcam of a collector who has “bought” his life and is going to film him 24/7, until he dies. He is friendly, but resolute: the greatest catastrophe of our life is death, which is an individual catastrophe, as well as a foretold and inevitable one. With his childhood obsessions, adult manias, future artistic ambitions, religion, memory, love and other pleasant things, Mr Christian Boltanski is powerfully back in the pages of DROME (he was already in our Time issue, but perhaps you know it already)
DROME: Tell us about Chance, your installation at the Venice Biennale.
CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI: Chance is about hazard, and was specifically created for the Biennale. I mixed together portraits of Polish newborns and deceased elderly Swiss people. I cut each face into three parts: forehead, eyes and mouth. As in a slot machine, you push the button and have a randomly assembled face. The viewer who happens to match all the parts of the original face wins the work. The odds of winning are one in 40,000!
D: Why did you choose the theme of chance for the Biennale?
CB: The basic idea is that what we are is linked to chance from the moment our parents made love. If they had made love a few seconds before or after, we would have been different. It is a mere technical and temporal matter: we are just the result of chance. There is nothing mystical about our existence.
D: So you don’t believe in God…
CB: No, even if I had a Catholic upbringing… (I received the Sacrament).
D: What do you like about Catholicism?
CB: It is a very human religion. It is against God because it glorifies man, I mean Jesus. In my opinion, every one of us is Christ, of course, and he was not such a special person, after all. I don’t believe in an old, white-bearded man who decides that in three minutes you are going to be knocked down by a car. If you have a car accident, it is because you got distracted, not because somebody upstairs wanted it that way.
D: And what do you think about your father’s religion, Judaism?
CB: These religions are very similar, but in Christianity the figure of Christ is very interesting. What really strikes me is that he is always represented as the last of men, the poorest, the most miserable, the most beaten up, the most suffering one. There is a sort of glorification of ordinary man.
D: So life is just a matter of chance. Is there any human will involved in all this?
CB: Of course, but chance rules most of our lives, as I already pointed out in Personnes, at the Grand Palais (Manifesta 2010, EN), which was about the Holocaust. For the Biennale, I wanted to create a more cheerful, not tragic exhibition. I see the Biennale as a big carnival, a feast. I didn’t want it to be sad.
D: It was certainly a more playful installation, but the pictures of the dead, in Chance, did not exactly cheer you up…
CB: Let’s say that the whole setting is playful, but the reflection is serious, and that’s true: Polish newborns are quite ugly.
D: Why would you choose ugly newborns?
CB: They are only one day old, and their faces are all wrinkled. What I found quite intriguing is that the “Grand Journal”, the Polish daily newspaper, every Saturday shows the photos of 800 babies born during the week. It is impressive: there is not even their name, and they are so small. I think they do it to sell more copies: they know there are at least 800 people who are going to buy it… It is part of the Polish mind-set. They are very catholic and have lots of children.
D: I read what you said about your “overwhelming empathy” and your desire to hug people in the underground: it sounds like joy is quite a recent discovery for you.
CB: Yes, I would like to meet everybody, because we are all unique, thanks to the spermatozoon’s story, and each person gives you something different. It is an overwhelming empathy, because there is no time to do everything, I can’t kiss all the people in the street, it’s impossible. I have a cheerful disposition, and the world is wonderful: “learning” the world, looking at all its images, is amazing… even if in my works I pose existential questions, and death is always there.
D: Is death something you are worried about?
CB: Not on a daily basis, but this feeling of the time passing by, I’ve got it since I was 24. However, today I feel more cheerful than I was at 20. When I was 5, I used to listen to the family stories of the concentration camp survivors. My father is a survivor and, as in a film, he survived for a matter of seconds. Once again, it was completely by accident.
D: Why would Jews have to suffer more than any other people?
CB: I don’t know, but it was the same for the people who died in the Haiti earthquake. Why did it happen to them and not to us? Anyway, I think this is not so important, because many Haitians who died in the earthquake have already been replaced. In this respect, there is a terrible, but beautiful quote by Napoleon. When he saw the thousands of dead at Austerlitz, he said: “What does it matter! One night of love in Paris will replace all that”. It is quite a lucid and realistic view. Life goes on, and there will be another art critic and another artist in a few years. Neither you nor I will be here. There will always be people kissing by the Seine, and unique people will be replaced by other equally unique people.
D: And so, what happens after death?
CB: Nothing, emptiness. Of course, it would be better to believe in the existence of another life. That’s why people try to leave something of themselves behind when they die, in order to remain present in other people’s memory. I know I am lucky, because I am an artist and I can leave something that can touch people even after my death.
D: Is the collector who keeps the artist alive even after his death?
CB: Most of my work is gone. What remains is the memory of it, not necessarily a physical object. It is not the collector who keeps the artist alive, but knowledge. On the occasion of my Personnes exhibition, I wished the Grand Palais had included my work in a repertoire, just like the Comédie Française: there is a sort of permission for staging a play after 50 or 100 years, and it would be very interesting if such a system was also extended to contemporary art.
D: This would totally fit in with the spirit of your art, which is mainly about memory, but often consists of immaterial works.
CB: I have never used bronze or marble in my works, but always ephemeral materials that require some sort of emotional care, because works of art have to do more with emotions than materiality, thanks to the gaze that rests upon them. In Italy, I created a memorial, but I didn’t really feel like doing it, because I had no connection with that specific event, but people were so nice that I accepted. It was created for the Ustica Massacre, the crash of the plane flying from Bologna to Palermo. I created a sound installation. Eighty people died in this air crash, and I imagined the last thought of each of them. They are all positive thoughts: “I hope mum cooked something good”, or “I hope my cousin is doing well.” They were Sicilian people living in Bologna and flying back to visit their family. Once again, this is an immaterial work (the project is a permanent installation at the Museum for the Memory of Ustica, EN).
D: Just like the project bought by the Japanese collector, Les archives du Coeur.
CB: I recorded more than 40,000 heartbeats, which are on the island of Teshima (at the Teshima Art Museum in Japan, EN). It is like going to the dentist: anyone can go there, and ask to listen to Mrs X’s or Mr Y’s heartbeats. Eventually, these heartbeats are going to be the heartbeats of dead people. Paradoxically, this will be more a reminder of their absence than of their presence, because this work preserves the sound, not the person.
D: So, in the end, we are still talking about death. Would you like to find the elixir of life?
CB: Part of my work is an attempt to stop time, but it doesn’t work. You know, in this moment we are being filmed, and I am filmed 24 hours a day, but this won’t make me live any longer (Boltanski sold his life, in exchange for a life annuity, to a collector who made a fortune gambling, EN). On the contrary, this kind of action points out how desperately impossible such a task is. Just like Highlander, I wish I could move through different ages, because I never get bored of life (even though death doesn’t make me sad…).
D: How was your childhood and adolescence?
CB: I left school when I was 14. I was quite a singular person, I didn’t like studying and I couldn’t really adapt to the system. I had a happy life because I spent my days doing maniacal, obsessive, cerebral, lonely activities, such as painting. I didn’t go out in the street. I started going out by myself in 1967, when I was attending the school of fine arts and the poster workshop for the revolution. One day I made a plasticine object, and my brother (Luc, a well-known sociologist, EN) told me it was beautiful, so I started making objects. It was the first time I received a compliment, and, since I was not talking, that was my way of communicating. The things I created were the product of a mental 5-year-old child.
D: There is always a first time… even for great artists.
CB: Since my brothers studied, and their studies were related to words, I think I just wanted to be different by picking up a more emotional, more physical discipline. When I was about 13, I wanted to be a painter, and I knew I would become one eventually, I had no doubt at that time. I was lucky enough to have parents who allowed me not to go to school and encouraged me to keep on making these very large-format paintings. Painting, to me, was almost a sort of therapeutic activity, but things are much better now, I took care of myself.
D: This DROME issue is dedicated to Catastrophe. What does this word suggest to you?
CB: This is perfect. Life is nothing but a foretold catastrophe: our death, a sort of individual catastrophe, because time is stronger than us, and believing in God helps us overcome this fear.
D: I was reading some statements about your work and about your concern for documentation and preservation, just in case there was an atomic war or a natural catastrophe.
CB: Yes, but this is just an illusion, because we preserve things, but at the same time we do no preserve anything. I have been doing the same job for all my life. In the text you mention, I say: “I want to put my life in a box to preserve it and keep hold of everything”, but I wrote it when I was 23 or 24. I keep talking about the same thing, but in a different way.
D: We have talked enough about death… What about love?
CB: There is not much sex in my work, that’s a shame.
D: I was talking about love, not sex…
CB: I think that the great subject of art is God in front of death and sex. When you visit the Louvre, it is all about sex and violence. In my work, there is no sex, or at least it is not visible.
D: When you talk about spermatozoa, you talk about sex.
CB: This is rather biology. There is no outburst of love. Even in the case of love, chance plays a crucial role. I think we could fall in love with 4,000 or 10,000 different people: if we fall in love with one is just by accident.
D: That’s not very romantic…
CB: For some time I liked the idea that I was in love with a girl from a Soviet camp, who died in the 1930s, and we had just missed each other. Let’s say it’s a geographical and temporal matter. We need to love somebody, and to be with one person, but I don’t think there is only one person in the world we could madly be in love with, just like Romeo and Juliet.
D: As an artist selected by the Biennale, were you interested in the political situation of the country that hosted you? What do you think about Berlusconi’s catastrophic government? (This question was asked before the new technocratic government was appointed, EN)
CB: I think it is a sort of Italian tragicomedy. But, in general, in Europe there is an increasing number of fascist movements, and, in my opinion, the real danger is not Berlusconi, but the North League, which is similar to Marine Le Pen’s French party, and could be ruling the country one day. Berlusconi, poor guy, is just a comedian. It is difficult to deal with politics at the Biennale, even if art is a political matter, but I don’t want to use art for politics. Let’s say that I consider myself as a humanist, and I am not linked to any movement or political activity. Talking about Berlusconi at the Biennale would not have been interesting to me. But it is true that the situation is quite serious, and many projects of mine have been called off because there is no money. I wish Italy was a more open country, because I like working with the Italians (in 2011, the Volume! Foundation of Rome hosted “Sans Fin”, a Boltanski solo exhibition, which was also a sort of teaser for the work he exhibited in Venice, EN).
D: What will your next work be about?
CB: I am very keen on the Internet. Do you know those websites with all the girls waving at you? What I find really fascinating is that they are on the other side of the world and… they wave at you. But if you fall in love with any of them, you don’t even know where they are from. There is no way to get to them. The fascinating thing is that I can watch them live, and their life is different from mine. I think the Internet is just wonderful, you can happen to meet many people by chance, which was impossible before. I imagine a work, for example, where people can buy a quarter-hour of Christian’s life between 4:15 and 4:30, right from the gallery…
World Wide Web, until artist’s death
Published on DROME 20 – the CATASTROPHE issue