Christian Boltanski: Providence, Chance or Destiny?

At Shanghai's Power Station of Art, a retrospective of the artist's large-scale installation work asking: why are we here? How will we be remembered?

Christian Boltanski has built a career on asking some of our most pressing existential questions: Why are we here? How will we be remembered? Who or what controls our destinies? Perhaps most insistently, he has been concerned with the extent to which memory shapes our sense of humanity – our collective as well as individual histories. For Boltanski, memory is porous, fragile and, at times, faithless, while retaining its power to preserve our darkest narratives and traumas, perpetuating our grimmest realities and the ongoing daily evidence of our violence and inhumanity.

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Christian Boltanski, Les Ombres - Angel, 1985. Courtesy: the artist and Power Station of Art, Shanghai

‘Storage Memory’, at the Power Station of Art (PSA) in Shanghai, is Boltanski’s first major museum show in China. Curated by Jean-Hubert Martin – the artist’s longtime friend – the exhibition features works from the mid 1980s to more recent large-scale installations. The first of these that we encounter is Personnes (2010), with its potent death camp echoes and title suggestive of ‘persons’, ‘anybody’ and ‘nobody’, which occupies PSA’s atrium entrance space. The piece comprises a mountain of clothing, weighing nearly 10-tonnes, into which the automated hydraulic claw of a 15-metre crane periodically descends, like some mysterious hand of God, to grab a bundle of garments at random, lifting them high before dropping them back to the massive pile. Here, its action is powerfully augmented by a newly commissioned, site-specific sound work, Cœur (2018), in the former power station’s 165-metre chimney: the amplified heartbeat of Boltanski himself. Accompanied by a bare industrial lightbulb flickering in unison, the pulsating sound can heard throughout the museum’s ground floor. This work is related to the artist’s project Les Archives du coeur (The Heart Archive, 2005–ongoing), for which he has recorded heartbeats from around the world. To date, the collection has grown to nearly 120,000 and is permanently housed on Japan’s Teshima Island. Visitors to PSA are also invited to record their own heartbeats for the archive.

Another major installation anchoring the first floor is Chance – the Wheel of Fortune (2011), created for the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale the same year. A large labyrinth of metal scaffolding spools a ribbon of photographs of Polish babies in conveyor-belt fashion, like newspapers rolling off the press. Periodically, one image is arbitarily selected by a computer and the baby’s face is displayed on a small monitor. Boltanski has long speculated on the forces of chance, asking whether our births were the result of providence, by some luck of the draw, or destiny.

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Christian Boltanski, Chance - the Wheel of Fortune, 2011, installation view, 2018, Power Station of Art, Shanghai. Courtesy: the artist and Power Station of Art, Shanghai

The second floor of ‘Storage Memory’ takes a more spectral shift, with the artist engaging intimate spaces to produce tableaux of darkness. We are led through Couloir d’ampoules (Corridor of Lightbulbs, 2015), a narrow corridor where 130 black coats are suspended, illuminated by 53 small lightbulbs. Visitors must navigate these garments, often brushing shoulders, which evokes an eerie awareness of absent souls. Tucked away in small enclosed alcoves are Boltanski’s shadow theatre works, ‘Les Ombres’ (The Shadows, 1985), of which there are four in the show. These seemingly primitive, macabre dioramas – an angel of death in flight, a hanged man, a ballerina –remain captivating and enchanting. Also included are the artist’s well-known series ‘Monuments’ and ‘Autel’ (Altars), made the following year. Slightly blurred photographic images, each illuminated by a single gooseneck lamp and, in many cases, accompanied by a stack of old biscuit tins serving as reliquaries, these are powerful memorials commemorating missing children and victims of the Holocaust.

Growing up listening to the atrocities and horror of the Shoah has haunted this artist his entire life. I can’t help but think that Boltanski might be both keeper of the flame and our supreme elegist in today’s troubled and disquieting times.

Christian Boltanski: ‘Storage Memory’ runs at the Power Station of Art, Shanghai until 8 July.

Main image: Christian Boltanski, Personnes, 2010, installation view, 2018, Power Station of Art, Shanghai. Courtesy: the artist and Power Station of Art, Shanghai

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Arthur Solway is based in Shanghai, China. His essays, reviews and poetry have appeared most recently in Art Asia PacificArtforumTriQuarterly and BOMB.

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