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.

web_pic17-les-ombres-angel-storage-memory-exhibition-hall-psa-2018.jpg

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.

web_pic8-chance-the-wheel-of-fortune-storage-memory-exhibition-hall-psa-2018.jpg

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

SaveSave

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

Issue 196

First published in Issue 196

June - August 2018

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018