Boltanski. Un pueblo de fantasmas
Posted on 24 August, 2016
This text was read at a round table, “Incomplete traces. Identity, memory and oblivion”, on May 24, 2016, as a parallel activity to the exhibition Animitas. Christian Boltanski, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey, January 21 – June 5, 2016.
Every time I approach Christian Boltanski’s work, I’m left with the same feeling of uncertainty and unease. His work upsets me as much as it fascinates and attracts me. It seems mysterious and contradictory to me; the artist himself is unsettling to me, like Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Sophie Calle or Pierre Huyghe, who move between reality and fiction, persona and character, autobiography and mythology, without us ever knowing who they are and whether they lived what they reveal of themselves to us or if it is just a story. The boundaries between their personal history and their work are blurred, and one is
always left with more questions than answers. For Boltanski: “Good artists no longer have a life; their only life consists of telling that which to each one seems to be their own story”. His universe, or at least the universe he shows us through his production, is a sort of labyrinth, with mysterious surroundings, semi-darkness and candles, which we penetrate. And then it all becomes an enigma. I will try to go inside the enigma.
A ghost story for grown ups.
Naming, marking, remembering a name is something of great value. The more somebody’s presence is shown by their name, a heartbeat, an old photograph, worn clothes, the more one says about their absence. By showing the absence, I say: “This took place”.
One of the first impressions that Boltanski’s work makes in me is that of a work inhabited by a multitude of ghosts, wandering through the spaces and watching us. I can imagine that at night, when the museum rooms where it is exhibited are supposed to be empty, uncanny things take place… Perhaps instead of ghosts one should speak of spectres. The word spectre comes from the Latin spectrum, from the verb specere or spicere, meaning “to see, to watch”. It was used as a synonym for the Greek word eidôlon, idol, which in Epicurean philosophy designated the simulacra, that is, the emanations of physical objects that gave rise to mental images or apparitions. Later, spectre meant illusion, the appearance of something not corresponding to reality, a false semblance; and afterwards it came to mean a pale and lanky person evoking a corpse or death, which is probably the most widely known sense of the word. I can find in Boltanski’s work these diverse meanings of the word spectre: apparitions, idols, simulacra, illusions, false semblances, the light and the dead (even other meanings I did not mention above, of a scientific nature: for instance, the light spectrum).
Christian Boltanski works with images: photographic, poetical, symbolic. According to Georges Didi-Huberman: “The image —starting with those portraits of Florentine bankers which Warburg questioned with particular fervor— should be considered firstly as that which survives from a town of ghosts”.  Boltanski plays with the image and with the ghosts; that is, with the spectral character of the image, particularly with that of photography.
In his famous essay on photography, Roland Barthes argues that the photographic device has three basic moments: taking the photograph, suffering it, and looking at it. The Operator is the one that takes the photograph; that is, the photographer. The Spectator is the one who looks at it. Barthes adds: “And the person or the thing that is photographed, that is, the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, eidôlon emmitted by the object, I would call the Spectrum of the photograph, since this word preserves through its root a relation to the ‘spectacle’, and adds something terrible which is present in all photography: the return of the dead”.  It’s interesting to note that in French revenant means the one who returns, the ghost. In the same essay, Barthes says that when he is photographed, he doesn’t feel he is a subject or an object, but a spectre: “The photographer knows it and fears (even for commercial reasons) this death to which his gesture will embalm me”. We come back to the spectre. He notes further: “I read at the same time: this will be and this was; I watch in amazement the future perfect whose wager is death. By giving me the absolute past of the pose, the photograph tells me death in the future”. Whoever looks at a photograph sees in there the “presence of an absence”; something that has been there, but is no longer there. This would be the ambiguity of these images, a limbo between presence and absence, the illusion, the false semblance, the simulacrum. The enigma persists.
Here I’d like to recall one of the myths of the origins of the image, a fable by Pliny quoted by Philippe Dubois in another famous essay on photography. He introduces the subject of memory, remembrance, trace. The fable considers how to preserve through an image the memory (the presence) of the loved one, faced with their imminent departure. The problem is how to fix the image to preserve the traces faced with oblivion. In Pliny’s fable, the enamoured girl attempts to overcome her lover’s disappearance. First she considers drawing his shadow projected on a wall; that is, producing an image from a shadow. But then she worries about the fragility of the drawing and its possible disappearance. Since her father is a potter, she puts clay over the drawing and bakes it, thus obtaining a terracota bas-relief. Thus she will be able to preserve the memory (the trace) of her loved one. In his interpretation of Pliny’s fable, Dubois insists on the double nature of the image (which can be extended over to photography). For him, the girl’s gesture enables her “to affirm the existence of the referent as irrefutable proof of what actually took place, while making it eternal, fixing it beyond its own absence. But also in this same movement, to designate this mummified referent as something ineluctably lost, inaccessible as such for the present, is at the same time to build a statue for it, forever as a sign, consigning it as a referent to an inexorable absence, to oblivion, to a lack, to death”. 
Christian Boltanski questions and uses this double nature of the image. Regarding the possibility of fixing memory, the artist states: “Each one of us is very important because of our unicity, and highly vulnerable at the same time. After two generations, we are forgotten. Part of my activity consists of trying to preserve the life of each human being. Naturally, I know this is impossible. I voluntarily take on the notion of a work that cannot be successful and which is destined to fail rght from the start. An ephemeral work. It is for this reason that I work with very light materials, paper for instance. Otherwise, I would have made bronze statues”.
Boltanski’s work aims at preserving memory, but at the same time the artist is skeptical of the value of photography as a document, as proof of truth, and even more as proof of permanence. By using certain fragile resources, such as the curtains that blur the details; out of focus images placed in semi-darkness; light effects; shadows (in such pieces as Reflection, Lights, Regards, and particularly in Shadows), the artist questions the photographic device and puts into play photography’s truth value as document, as proof or index. Thus he stresses photography’s inability to retain the past, and insists on the fragility of traces and the inexorable loss of the past.
The archives of evil
In this striving for/impossibility of retaining the past, one finds another one of the complex strategies employed by Christian Boltanski; I mean the use of archives. For a long time now, the artist has familiarized us with this archive effect with his enigmatic boxes, collections, inventories, photo albums, hallways lined with photographs or mysterious images. He compiles, accumulates, utilizes ready-made archives or creates them from newspsaper images or documents found in flea markets.
Here I will make a brief digression about artistic context in relation to the archive paradigm. Throughout the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, visual artists have made use of it in different contexts to produce works dealing with memory, questioning identity and history. As Carmen María Jaramillo puts it: “Archives have become one of the main sources of creation for some contemporary artists, who through their training or their access to the most varied collections, construct poetics and subvert established truths.”  Anna María Guasch states that works that have as a starting point the archive paradigm reveal certain features of it to generate new discoursive acts.
In her analysis of the relation between art and archive ,
the author detects two main forms of archive handling in contemporary artistic statements: “One that highlights the regulating principle of the nomos (or the law) and the topographic order, and one that stresses those processes derived from the contradictory actions of storing and keeping and at the same time forgetting and destroying traces of the past; a discontinous and occasionally urge-driven manner which acts according to an anomic principle (without law)”. The author points out that some of the artists that started working with archives during the second half of the 20th century are German or French, such as Bernd & Hilla Becher, Gerhard Richter, Annette Messager and Christian Boltanski, and in one way or another their works refer to the Second World War. “Hardly classifiable, these artists’ works feature different ways of understanding the principles of order, record and accumulation, from seriality and the provenance archive (the Bechers), to anomie in Boltanski’s case”.
But why such an interest in archives, particularly in regard to the Second World War period? After the end of the war, a kind of reorganization of history began, a renegotiation of political relations, with a huge load of guilt, enmity and responsibilities (taking into account the magnitude of the disaster), facing a new era. This sparked, among other conflicts, a struggle for control of the archives. During the postwar era, historical archives were analyzed, controlled, manipulated and in many cases destroyed, generating zones of silence and of forgetfulness-management.  In The sickness of the archive, Jacques Derrida discusses this situation: “The disasters that mark the end of the millenium are also the archives of evil: concealed or destroyed, forbidden, manipulated, repressed. Their handling is both massive and subtle during civil or international wars, with private and secret manipulations. They never desist, in the unconscious itself, of appropriating a power over the document, over its possession, its retention or its interpretation. But in the last instance, to whom does the authority over the institution of archives correspond?” 
Archives are not just an accumulation of documents, memories or a memory experience; they are the site where information is organized and where history is (re)built. As Derrida points out, it is above all a site of authority. The arkheion of the Greeks was at once the origin, the beginning, and the magistracy, the place “where those who held power could deposit or make use of the accounts or documents of public interest for the city, or national interest as we would say today”. The arkheion is at once the beginning (the origin) and the mandate (the authority). This is why archives conceal an intrinsic violence: in order to preserve, respect for the law must be enforced. The archive is a trace, but a trace “appropriated, controlled and organized under political control”. 
Archiving implies a series of operations of power: which documents to select, which to destroy, according to what criteria and to what ends. This is about deciding what to preserve and what not to preserve, and in this decision (selection) there is violence, which is not exclusive to the State. For Derrida, archiving is also an operation of the unconscious and of memory. “In a single person there is what memory, what the economy of memory, preserves or does not preserve, destroys or does not destroy, inhibits one way or another. There is a constitution of mnemic archives where there is economy, trace selection, interpretation, recollection, etc.”
Ambiguity and contradiction show up once more: archives are instituent and conservative, revolutionary and traditional, all at the same time.
Derrida argues that besides being a site of authority, archives are a place where something can take place, where something can happen; this is how artists appropriate archives as a device, to make this violence visible, to question it or to show its more absurd aspect, pushing the laws of the archive to their ultimate consequences. Several works by Christian Boltanski take this route; one example is Les Archives (The archives), a piece exhibited in 1987 at dOCUMENTA 8 in Kassel. Along a hallway, the artist arranges a series of grills on which he hangs 366 photographs of faces and family scenes, including the Family D. Album (1939-1964), establishing an obvious link to the photograph records held by the Nazis in the extermination camps and by the French police during the Collaboration period. Les Archives de C.B. 1965-1988 consists of a wall made up of 646 rusting metal cookie boxes, arranged in unstable three meter tall piles bathed in soft light. These fragile piles of boxes contain over 1200 photographs and 800 personal documents of the artist, a large part of his life, which are inaccessible to the visitor. In a book about the artist, Lynn Gumpert writes: “To create it, Boltanski emptied his workshop and his home of the disorder accumulated over the years; he ordered his past into tins, subtracting it from his own as well as the spectator’s view. However, as is his wont, he evidences an irrepressible spirit of contradiction and ambivalence. It is true that his papers and memories were already archived, but being deprived of any order or index of reference, they are unusable for all practical purposes”. 
In this way the artist subverts the archive device by preserving documents that cannot be consulted and thus become useless. In Coeur (Heart), a piece he began in 2005, we can listen to the artist’’s heartbeat, synchronized with a lightbulb that goes on and off; a kind of heartbeat album or archive. This archive might express a way of immortalizing life. This piece has its sequel in The archives of the heart, which he began in 2008; it gathers thousands of heartbeats, to be preserved in a Japanese island as traces of life from several people who, while not actually transcending death, at least will attempt to transcend oblivion.
Undoubtedly, transcending oblivion is one of the main axis in the work of Christian Boltanski, who grew up in the postwar period, surrounded by Holocaust survivors who told stories of the war and of Deportation.
“The only thing I believe there is at the beginning of any artist’s life is a sort of trauma. And my trauma was that when I was very, very young —I was 2 or 3 years old— I heard many stories about the Holocaust, the Shoah, because most of my parents’ friends were survivors. I’m sure that listening to that when you’re very, very young —hearing about all those crimes, hearing that everything is dangerous, that you’re a survivor, that you’re alone— has to change your life.” And he adds: “However, it wasn’t the fact of being Jewish; it was the fact of knowing this story of the war”.
Boltanski was born in 1944. He belongs to a generation that did not live through the war, and hence has no memory of it. However, like many in his generation, he remembers through the memories of others. It was largely through stories told by his parents’ friends that he was able to imagine what hasppened during the war, and to turn those recollections into a memory of his own.
Marianne Hirsch, the daughter of Romanian deportees of Jewish descent, analyzes the traumatic inheritance of the children of Holocaust deportees. She says that this phenomenon has been given several names from different perspectives: inherited memory, absent memory, hollow memory, memory of ashes, received history, and postmemory. She judges this latter term to be the most accurate regarding her own experience:
“Postmemory” describes the relations that the “succeeding generation” carries over with the personal, collective and cultural trauma of their ancestors —experiencies they “recall” only through stories, images and behaviors that accompanied their childhood. But these experiences were transmitted in such a deep and affective way that they seem like their own memories. The relation between “postmemory” and the past is not effected through recollection, but rather through imagination, projection and creation. Growing up with overwhelming inherited memories, being overcome by narratives predating one’s own birth or awareness, bring about the risk of having one’s life displaced or even eliminated by the ancestors’ lives. It implies being marked, however indirectly, by fragments of events exceeding narrative reconstruction and surpassing the understanding. These events took place in the past, but their effects continue into the present. This is, I think, the structure of “postmemory” and the process of its generation”. 
The author points out that it is generally a deeply internalized and little-known past, adding that the academic or artistic work of several descendants is mediated by images and narratives accessible to all. With this she tries to show that “Family life, even in the most intimate moments, is rooted in collective imaginaries defined by public and generational structures of imagination and projection, and by a shared archive of stories and images that affects the transmission of individual and family memory.” 
Through her research, Hirsch argues that “postmemory” work attempts to “reactivate and reinstate the most distant structures of memory, social/national or cultural/archival, reinvesting them with individual and familiar forms of mediation and artistic expression” .
In Boltanski’s work, even when the piece is not directly related to the Holocaust, it would seem there is a hidden script linking his whole production to this traumatic period in history: the stagings, the textures, the surroundings, the archives, the handling of the image, everything seems to be stamped by an aesthetics and a poetics that go back to the Shoah.
As a conclusion
What affects me more in the work of Christian Boltanski are those regards that pierce through time and space to meet us here and now. Anonymous photographs, neutral stories of people regarding us. Regards would be an example of this: the piece forces the spectator, wherever he or she may be, to face the insisting regard of people who were probably sent to the extermination camps.
 Georges Didi-Huberman, L’Image survivante. Histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg, París, Éditions de Minuit, 2002. (My translation)
 Roland Barthes. La chambre claire. Notes sur la photographie. Editions de l´Étoile, Gallimard, París, Le Seuil, 1980, pp. 22 y 23. (My translation.)
 Ibid. , p. 31.
 Philippe Dubois, El acto fotográfico. De la representación a la recepción, Barcelona, Paidós, 1994, p. 111.
 Ibid. , p. 112.
 Portrait-Dossier: Entrevista a Christian Boltanski. “La personne qui vit l´oeuvre fait l´oeuvre.”
http://www.culture.fr/Actualites/Portrait-Dossier/Christian-Boltanski-La-personne-qui-vit-l-aeuvre-fait-l-aeuvre/(theme)/1 Consulta: 20 de mayo, 2016.
 Carmen María Jaramillo, “Archivos y política / Políticas de archivo”, Errata #1. Revista de Artes Visuales, http://revistaerrata.com/ediciones/errata-1-arte-y-archivos/archivos-y-politica-politicas-de-archivo/. Consulta: 10 de febrero, 2013.
 Anna María Guash, Arte y Archivo 1920-2010. Genealogía, tipologías, discontinuidades, Madrid, Akal, 2011, p. 10.
 For instance, historical French archives relating to the Collaboration period were denied to the public during almost six decades.
 Jacques Derrida, Mal de archivo, París, Editions Galilée, 2008, http://www.editions-galilee.com/f/index.php?sp=liv&livre_id=2781 . Consulted: May 21, 2016. (My translation.)
 Jacques Derrida. Trace et archive, image et art, París, Éditions INA, 2014, p. 60.
 Ibid ., pp. 60 y 61.
 Véase la obra de On Kawara.
 Anna María Guasch, op. cit., p. 58.
 Lynn Gumpert, Christian Boltanski, París, Flammarion. 1992, p 143. Quoted by Régine Robin, La memoria saturada, Buenos Aires, Waldhuter Editorales, 2012.
 Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory. Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, Nueva York, Columbia University, 2012. http://facweb.northseattle.edu/cscheuer/Winter%202012/
Engl%20102%20Culture/Readings/Hirsch%20Postmemory.pdf , pp. 106 y 107. Consulted: August 7, 2014. (My translation.)
 Ibid , p. 114. “Family life, even in its most intimate moments, is entrenched in a collective imaginary shaped by public, generational structures of fantasy and projection and by a shared archive of stories and images that inflect the transmission of individual and familial remembrance”.
p 111. “I want to suggest—and this is the central point of my argument in this essay—strives to reactivate and reembody more distant social/national and archival/cultural memorial structures by reinvesting them with resonant individual and familial forms of mediation and aesthetic expression”.