The idea that, in the light of what has happened, a statue or a painting, or a piece of abstract sculpture, can no longer carry weight or actually matter, animate the work of Christian Boltanski. Boltanski seems to believe that there are enough objects in the world, and there is no point in making any more. He is haunted by death, by the death of each individual, by the death of aspects of ourselves – childhood, for example, and by the death of the idea that, in the absence of religion, science or reason will save us. His work is filled with palpable absences, a deep sense of grieving.
He is haunted, too, by history, most notably the Holocaust. He was born in Paris in 1944 to a Jewish father and a Corsican mother. What happened to the Jews in Europe in the years around his birth is there somewhere in almost every suggestive image he has made. Because, most of the time, it is there indirectly and subtly, and often quietly and sadly, his work has a strange fierce power which gives it a monumentality and a seriousness which it does not strive for, but tends to achieve almost in spite of itself.
Small stray things, left-over objects, fascinate him, such as the belongings of someone who has died, or unclaimed lost property, or second hand clothes, or old biscuit tins (he used his own urine to help them rust; later, he used Coca-Cola, which is a sort of proto-urine) or small photographs of recently dead people which appear in newspapers. So too anything that can be put into a glass case holds his attention.
His work is filled with a sort of dark, exalted irony; his tone veers between the deadly serious, the shamanistic and the mocking. Boltanski is also capable of self-mockery and playfulness. For example, he has a series of photographs of food on a plate against a flat colour background that seem sad and tawdry but also have a funny echo of still life paintings and indeed modern display advertising. It is the very seriousness of the arrangement against the cheapness of the objects that makes you stand and watch.
It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry at some of Boltanski’s work, but the ambiguity not only in the idea but in the visual presentation has a richness that makes you look and look again. Often, with work like this, which uses found objects and pre-made images, you just get the joke and move on; with Boltanski, you might grin but then you shiver.
There is at the heart of his work a sense of human suffering in a vain and desperate search for authenticity. He knows we have a need for ritual, a hunger for meaning, which, sadly, cannot be satisfied. Rather than transcendence, there is only photography, electricity or advertising. Some of his installation work attempts the gravity of an altar, full of light and arrangement, but filled also with pure melancholy and gloom.
His use of old clothes and stray photographs have an air of mourning about them. It is impossible, in looking at his work, not to think of large political questions and serious philosophical issues but he has a way of side-stepping, wrong-footing you as you watch, making you take in the image rather than the idea. His images of dead Swiss people attached to piled-up biscuit tins may be sad, but their Swissness makes you laugh. And then you don’t know what to do. For Boltanski, such helplessness is not an ignoble condition.