Christian Boltanski
The Heart Archive, on view at the Nahum Gutman Art Museum in Tel Aviv. Photo by Marc Damage
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Marc Damage
One critic described the concept of Boltanski's exhibit as 'an absurdly romantic mission worthy of a poetically inclined Napoleon.' Photo by Marc Damage

“For some years now, Christian Boltanski has been collecting recordings of the heartbeats of people from all over the world and storing them in a museum of a Japanese art collector on the small [otherwise uninhabited] Japanese island of Teshima, as a kind of  ‘library of hearts,’” writes Marie Shek, the curator of The Heart Archive,  in the explanatory notes for the exhibition of the French photographer-sculptor-painter-installation artist’s work at the Nahum Gutman Art Museum in Tel Aviv.

“Every recording has information about the identity of the person whose heartbeat was recorded, and the date of the recording as well. The artist’s intention is to collect, on the Japanese island, thousands of recordings of heartbeats that will keep the memory of the people alive even after death. Thanks to the recordings, the relatives and loved ones of the deceased will be able to come to the island to listen to the heartbeat of their beloved.”

This story encapsulates the essence of Boltanski, the man and his work, and helps us to understand the place of the man and of his art. He specializes in locating a particular element, isolating it from its context (whether it is a body part or a document), and turning it into an abstract mega-symbol with a powerful, kitschy effect. He repeats, duplicates and expands it to enormous dimensions that correspond to the aesthetic of an archive, rendering the element still more powerful (whether a memorial wall or a morgue). He presents all this in spaces connected with a great deal of money (so much money that it seems like “culture”), disguised as caves or benches in a camp, refugee camps or spontaneous folk memorials. He did this with the concept of the portrait and the photograph as document. Now he has done it with heartbeats, which play a starring role in his current exhibition where sound is the dominant component.

A remnant of a remnant

In the exhibition, his own heartbeat (recorded in 2005) beats like war drums through the exhibition hall, amplified to the point that it serves as a musical base that could support any rhythm on earth, like an anxiety attack. It creates the effect of a space that breathes, lives and feels. The walls become a sensitive epidermis and the feeling is one of entering the inside of a living body, a cave that has appeared as a repeating motif in Boltanski’s creations since the 1980s, when his work on the Holocaust became ever more explicit. He has always refused to admit that completely, like an artist who refuses to impose boundaries on the way that is works are interpreted. He claimed that it was a “possible interpretation” or even a reasonable one, as if he had been asked to confess to an indecent act or reveal a secret.

The surrounding walls are filled with black pictures, boards of smooth, black, shiny plastic that reflects light. They are hung in orderly if not methodical fashion, giving them the appearance of a wall hung with folk icons. We know that these are faceless portraits simply because of their size and the way they are placed as souvenirs. The portraits -- which were always anonymous for Boltanski in any case, individual capsules of humanity in the form of a single, entire tapestry – have disappeared as well. If we get close enough to make sure that there is nothing there, we  see our own faces looking back at us in blurred fashion, flickering like a shadow image, a fading daguerreotype, like a ghostly image that looks, as if veiled, back at our loved ones as they mourn us at the black marble monument that awaits us.

The empty panels, tabulae rasae, are also testimonies that were wiped out and remain as traces, the remnant of a remnant, as evidence of the attempt to document and represent which was either unsuccessful or wiped out and forgotten. At the center of the space, an exposed light bulb dangles, flickering in rhythm with the recorded heartbeat, providing a weak, blinking light.

The effect of the lighting is that of a den, a cave lit with candlelight or a campfire, Plato’s cave, in a continuation of Boltanski’s previous works. All of this is easily deciphered by anyone familiar with two or three of his previous works, which are constructed on the logic of repetition. On one side, portraits of Boltanski himself from the ages of six to 60 are projected, each dissolving into the next slowly and softly, like the passage of time itself. They are projected onto a white curtain with a fan behind it, making the images tremble slightly, moving as if they were breathing, given a bizarre, ghostly lifelike effect.

The colors of the exhibition, like many other works by the artist, include black and white with a golden light that result in a Christian-like look, slightly blackened and dim. As in his other projects, here, too, the main effect is one of the living watching the dead watching them.

Kitsch and death

Boltanski was never an artist who challenged prevailing concepts or opinions. On the contrary – he is an artist who puts sentimentality on display, makes a spectacle of melancholy. He is the great exploiter of material that arouses emotions such as “We are all one human tapestry,” of unrestrained emotion and populist manipulations such as “If one of us dies, something inside us dies with him.” He is expert at turning the vulgarity that precedes amnesia into a serious, restrained, mourning expression.

His monument-like work integrated well into the artistic trends that thrived in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, which sought a renewed vision of universality and unity after World War II. Boltanski was received enthusiastically because of the intense feeling of kitsch and death that he provided, and the restrained manner in which he offered it. Other reasons for his positive reception were his easily understood and apolitical symbolism, the way that he dealt with mourning and with the aesthetics of institutional archives, the melancholy atmosphere and the bottomless seriousness of metaphorical restoration – anonymous faces, red bricks, enormous piles of clothing, yearbooks of vanished schools, exposed electrical wires dangling among light bulbs like the living veins of a universal family tree.

The imagery of “everyman,” who is “no man” for him, the photographs enlarged so much that they lose their individuality and become blurry Rorschach-style images symbolizing human presence, the obsolescence of some vague past – these images are murkily lit, one light for each image whose shadow falls like a curtain on their foreheads. All of these, and others, provided convenient linguistic structures for those wishing to talk about “testimony,” “history” and “memory” in generalized, abstract terms, or for anyone who desired a feeling of “humanity” in its kitschy, bombastic, non-ironic meanings. Boltanski’s art appears in a guise of being difficult to digest since it hints at frightening worlds of content. But the methods and forms that it uses, the tools with which he deals with the various types of atrocity, are among the most simplistic that exist. For those who have difficulty adjusting at first, Bolanski has been repeating the same thing over and over again for about 40 years.

With the passage of time the magic of the picture, of the photograph as a replacement for one who had once been present and is now absent, expanded for him into a magic of the memorial space, an alternative place of worship, a temple. The bureaucratic-archive style of the tin boxes (for containing leftovers) has changed to a church-like style. The photographs were arranged in the form of altars, apses, spaces that do not require or call to mind acts of sorting or selection but rather purification and prayer. There is no more doubt. The extractor of emotion has become a sophisticated machine that produces more and more of the same thing, with minor changes in the echo of the stencil effect.

As one who never made a distinction between the “small” details of intimate memories and enormous political catastrophes with all their crimes and actually spliced them together, he has turned out to be a convenient artist for receiving awards and honors, as someone capable of arousing emotions and wringing tears over “the tragedy of humanity” even from members of parliament and bankers. His “archive of heartbeats” being collected on the island of Teshima in Japan is a high point among the plethora of monuments to the dead that is Boltanski’s life’s work. One critic has already written that his idea sounds like “an absurdly romantic mission worthy of a poetically inclined Napoleon.” It is the perfect gift for your loved ones if you belong to the class of people that owns a tract of land on the moon and has a star named after them.

Christian Boltanski, The Heart Archive. Curator: Marie Shek. At the Nahum Gutman Art Museum in Tel Aviv (21 Rokah Street). Open Sunday through Thursday from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., Fridays from 10:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M., and Saturdays from 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. Open until October 13, 2012.