Working around the Holocaust

French artist Christian Boltanski felt compelled to design an ‘opera’ for the annual ‘Monumenta’ exhibition in Paris.

monumenta art Boltanski 311 (photo credit: Didler Plowy)
monumenta art Boltanski 311
(photo credit: Didler Plowy)
The first thing I saw upon entering the “Monumenta” exhibit by French artist Christian Boltanski was a high wall of numbered metal boxes, rusted, under a long row of lamps.
Then a drum-like sound began to penetrate: the throbbing of 15,000 recorded heartbeats.
Finally, the vista of the Grand Palais exhibition hall opened before me: seemingly endless piles of clothing arranged along a grid, climaxing with a giant mountain of vestments over which a mechanical claw slowly descended.
For an artist who claims not to work directly with the Holocaust (“I can work around it,” he told The Jerusalem Post), Boltanski comes very close.
So deeply close that my relative Gilbert Michlin – an Auschwitz survivor living in Paris – could not bring himself to go to the Grand Palais to see it. But he urged me to go on his behalf. I am grateful to him.
Boltanski’s new work, Personnes, was created for the annual “Monumenta” exhibition, sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. It ran from January 13 through February 21. The artist told me he felt compelled to design an “opera” to fill the huge space of the Grand Palais. And an “audience” of more than 100,000 visited within the first couple of weeks alone.
In fact, Personnes worked like a performance that seemed to have no beginning or end – reminiscent of French existentialist philosophy, in which being and nothingness ultimately are one and the same.
The “chorus” of heartbeats felt like a reference to Greek tragedy, as did the red claw, lowered and hoisted over the pile of clothing by an unseen hand like a deus ex machina, the crane that would make actors in ancient Greece appear to descend like gods from the heavens.
For Boltanski, God is missing: He does not believe in a deity that cares about people at all. He himself cannot pray, he said.
Boltanski’s father came from a Jewish family, but converted to Catholicism. The artist – a petite, round-faced man with a warm and open manner – identifies as Jewish, but has never been inside a synagogue.
The French title of his work is important: “You go from ‘personnes’ with an ‘s,’ which means ‘people’ in French, to ‘personne’ without an ‘s,’ which means ‘no one,’” he told me. The work “is a little like a refugee camp; and after you arrive, you have a place to die.”
Walking with him through the “backstage” halls of the Grand Palais, I asked Boltanski if he were sad. He assured me, “I love life so much, also because I know I am going to die.”
Boltanski’s life and work have been determined by the Holocaust: He was conceived while his mother – a Catholic from the island of Corsica – was hiding his father, a French Jew of Ukrainian background, under the floor of their apartment. Boltanski’s older siblings thought their father had left them. It was safer that way.
Boltanski was born in September 1944, just after the liberation of Paris. He described his father as a traumatized man who never walked alone on the street after the war.
“I learned that everyone can be dangerous, anyone can kill you,” said Boltanski.
As a child, he heard his parents’ friends constantly wondering why they had survived the Holocaust when their families had died. There was never an answer, of course.
“Life is like being on a road where bombs are falling, and tomorrow it hits you,” he said.
He quit formal schooling early and pursued his artistic leanings, encouraged by his parents. Many of his works tap into subconscious fears dealing with the absence of life.
One work I have seen many times myself in my adopted home city of Berlin is Missing House. Intended as an ephemeral work, it has become part of the landscape of memorials in the German capital. In 1990, Boltanski placed signs on a wall facing the bombed-out site of a former apartment building; each sign bears the name and profession of someone who once lived there.
In 1993, Boltanski created another work centered on Berlin, using photos of children from the 1939 class at the Jewish School of Grosse Hamburgerstrasse. The images are haunting.
THIS YEAR, his Personnes exhibit in Paris overlapped with his Après (after) exhibit at the Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne (on display through March 28). Après allows visitors to explore what might take place after death, the artist has said.
In recent years, many artists have, wittingly or not, tested the famous statement by German philosopher Theodor Adorno that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” – and much crass kitsch and shock-art has been created in the name of so-called artistic or social enlightenment.
Boltanski has added another adage: He believes that “after [Claude] Lanzmann, it is totally impossible to do a work about the Shoah.” The French filmmaker’s documentaries include the nine-hour Shoah (1985) and Sobibor (2001).
Boltanski succeeds precisely by being indirect; he taps into a primordial source where familiar images float freely. Walking through Personnes is like crossing the landscape of a dream, or nightmare.
It is a penetrating work. I wandered between rows of carefully placed coats and jackets, stared up at the mountain of miscellaneous clothing, and not only heard but felt the throbbing heartbeats. Sunlight poured down through the hall’s domed glass ceiling. As darkness fell, fluorescent lights began to dominate.
Throughout the day, visitors came and went, most of them silently observing and absorbing. The absence in Personnes is palpable. And I could understand my relative’s reluctance to see it for himself.
Still, there is something strangely uplifting and spiritual about the work. One reviewer even described feeling joy.
Those who work there every day have a unique perspective.
“When I came for the first time, I was quite surprised and depressed,” museum pedagogue Elisa Heinrich, 28, told me. “Now I am more on the life side than the death side. And because I work here every day, it is better to be optimistic.”
Children’s impressions are often helpful in that way, said her colleague Sandra Doublet, 26, who – like Heinrich – works with visiting pupils. “Monumenta” always includes an educational element: Groups of elementary and high-school pupils can arrange to tour the exhibit with a museum guide. Children are encouraged to express their feelings through writing or theater exercises.
“One child said to me that that [heartbeat] sound was like a washing machine,” said Doublet. “Sometimes adults are blocked; they see only the Shoah. But it’s not the only thing to see.”
Personnes is not a didactic work. It can literally reflect what is in the visitor’s own heart, suggested Boltanski, who prefers to ask questions rather than posit answers.
“Some people said [the hearts] sound like a train, some people say it sounds like water, or the sea,” said the artist, who is collecting heart recordings and will archive them on Teshima Island in Japan, as a monument to the impossibility of eternal life.
Visitors to Personnes paid €5 to have their heartbeats recorded for the project, by a lab technician in a white jacket. Each donor took home a CD of their own heartbeat.
Is it all about trying to live forever? Boltanski knows he is trying to achieve the impossible.
“I always wanted to put my life in boxes, to preserve it,” he admits.“But I know [this archive of heartbeats] is not going to save me.[Swiss artist Alberto] Giacometti made a portrait of his brother everyday, but it did not save him!”
When I told Boltanski about my cousin’s anxiety, he said, “Some peopleare afraid, and think they will be sad when they visit. But forchildren it seems to be something happy, and I am glad about that. If achild tells me it makes them happy, I say, ‘OK, you must be right.’”