Christian Boltanski by Irene Borger

Christian Boltanski discusses his MOCA installation (Summer 1988) with Irene Borger. Boltanski’s somber installation reflects his concern that the Jews face a fate similar to that of the American Indians.

BOMB 26 Winter 1989
026 Winter 1988 89

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Christian Boltanski. Photo by David Seidner, 1988.

Christian Boltanski took time out to talk while he was installing his show in Los Angeles at MOCA this past summer. As we were walking around the Temporary Contemporary he mentioned he loved hanging the show in this space because the walls were so perfect, high and vast like a cathedral. He spoke of being an artist of a certain period, aware of minimalism and people like Don Judd—with his heart elsewhere. He spoke about fearing that the Jews, like the American Indians, were dying out. In this context, his installation took on the look of a museum of an extinct race, a shamanic and sinister version of the Calder Circus at the Whitney. We talked amidst the brouhaha of installation sounds: electric saws, telephones, trucks, mechanical bells going off.

Christian Boltanski There is a Hasidic story at the beginning of the catalogue for the current exhibition. It is really as much a Zen story. I think the artist’s life must be like a tale, like a Hasidic or a Zen story. Artists are very close to philosophers or must be. The artist’s life, as example, is perhaps the most important thing. Artists are rather like those saints who lived in the desert on columns. We’re like them; at the same time saints and crooks.

Irene Borger Buñuel made a film about them.

CB Yes, I didn’t see it.

IB Many people talk about the relation between art and shamanism and art and alchemy, but it feels like there’s a real relation in your work.

CB I’m not religious and that’s a pity for me but it’s a fact. But I am very interested in religion. I believe art must be about some kind of moral. Art must speak about things, very common things.

IB A French sociologist named Roger Bastide wrote that the sacred was very close to what we call the unconscious in our culture. It seems like that’s what you’re excavating.

CB Yes, sure it is. For me religion has three parts. One part is morality and my desire to make a moral work. In my work I try to speak about very universal things—about life and death, about being or not being guilty—very general problems but moral problems, philosophical relationships. Then, too, I’m very interested in religious form…

IB You mean like altars and ex-votos?

CB Yes. The third point is I think we are very close to preachers—and sometimes that’s dangerous. I’m very much like the preacher you see on American TV on Sunday mornings. I mean at the same time I both really believe in art and am a crook. We’re all like that.

IB I think this brings up the point of the quote in your catalogue from Jean Renoir: “The more emotional the material, the less emotional the treatment.”

CB My work, in a way, is a rather minimal art. But to continue to speak about religion, all the arts are very close to religion. I think a painting or a piece of art is just like a relic of a saint. In Europe, in the beginning of the Middle Ages, for a town to be important it had to have a lot of relics and when they couldn’t find a saint they invented a saint in order to have some little bones. If there were a lot of relics the town became very important, economically important. Exactly the same thing operates today with paintings in museums. If a little town has 10 Mondrians, for example, this little town is important. The Mondrian painting is really the same thing as the relic.

IB In thinking about ritual artifacts from traditional societies, the question is not “is it beautiful” but “does it work”, “does the magic work?” In your own work what’s the function of the pieces?

CB The pieces do have a function. A good piece of art must be something very open—that’s why it’s so difficult to speak about art. The work of art is something that stimulates memory. You look at it and you remember something else. For example, in the show there’s Album des Photos de la famille D.,1939–1964, rather old pieces. [Boltanski’s first installation of this piece was in 1971] In this album you have 25 years of the life of a family. You see all the photos of a normal family album. What I wanted to say is that we all have the same kind of family album. In fact, we don’t learn anything about this particular family, we learn about ourselves. When we see the little child on a beach, for example, we already know this photo. We remember our first time on the beach or the photo of our little brother. We learn images very early and thereafter we have plenty of images in our head. When we see reality we always try to match the image that we have with the reality before us. I think we don’t see reality, but we always try to recognize reality.

IB Sometimes we work in exactly the opposite way and we match our reality to the images from the culture.

CB This is also something to do with common memory. I told you that I am a little bit the preacher. And I told you I am a false preacher. In the early ‘70s I created a fiction for myself and took on the persona of a preacher from the South. I would say, “God is going to come.” (performs this with theatrical verve). And everybody would cry. I was really nervous but I wanted to do that. I took on another’s persona again, but not as a preacher, as a clown.

IB You literally performed, didn’t you?

CB I performed only twice, for children. There is a museum in Munich dedicated to a very interesting man who died just after the war. Before the war he was a famous German clown called Valentin, Karl Valentin. And his museum inspired me to make a museum of myself as a clown. I performed only two times—only to have some kind of memory—once with 12 children, and another time with about 40 children, but not in a museum. After that I created this little museum about this man. I said this clown is dead.

I am always interested with the idea of death, especially for a clown or a comic. When you are an artist, it’s a little bit the same, the more you work, the more you destroy yourself. If you think about Charlie Chaplin, you can only imagine the persona, you can’t see him without his little hat and all that. That means you create something and the more you create that the more you disappear.

IB You mean a persona takes over?

CB And you disappear and you are dead, in a way.

IB Or invisible.

CB Invisible or dead. I wanted to say that for myself I created the persona of the preacher, and in this way the clown and preacher were the same: I didn’t exist anymore. I am only this persona. I had an idea, a very Christian idea, that the artist is just like a man who has a mirror. The artist is behind the mirror and everybody is looking at him saying, “Oh, it’s me.” The man who hangs the mirror doesn’t exist anymore. He’s only what the people want.

IB So that’s why there’s a real fear of disappearance of the self, for the artist.

CB To be an artist is to disappear in a way. It’s a very Christian story, the idea of Christ, to give his body to the other. If you are only the minor and you are the other, you become the other.

IB This touches on the newer work, you have rephotographed and enlarged a portrait of a high school class, in such a way that the information in the pictures is no longer very specific and detailed. You’re really asking the spectator to fill it in.

CB You mean the Lycee Chases?

IB Yes. And, with the darkness of the installation, it feels like you’re playing with less and less information.

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Christian Boltanksi, Autel de Lycee Chases (Altar to Chases High School)from Lessons of Darkness, 1988 at MOCA, six black and white photographs, 22 tin biscuit boxes, and six lights, 67 × 84½ inches. Courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.

CB The less information you have, the more open the work, the more you can think about it. For example, a large part of my work now, and I think always, speaks about the Holocaust. And I think for me it is very important. But in another way I think it’s only part of my work. The Holocaust is only an example of dying. Of common and impersonal dying. But people who don’t know I’m interested in the Holocaust can see something else. And I want them to see something else.

IB I’m curious about that.

CB In the same body of work which is called Lessons of Darkness, is the large piece of The Children of Dijon. Now, the children of Dijon look very happy and yet, that period of time has passed, and they are now adults. The photo we can see was made 12 years ago. That means the photo of this little boy, the face we see now, has disappeared; they no longer exist.

IB So it only exists in the memory or in the artifacts?

CB Yes, but on another level they are just very happy children. Oh, they’re happy. It’s about death but they are not really dead. On the other hand, the Lycee Chases—it was very difficult for me to do this piece because I thought it was a little dangerous to make too precise pieces—but I found this photo of the graduating class of a Jewish school in Vienna in ‘31, and I don’t know anything about these people. I hope all these people are alive but I don’t know. For me, it’s really awful and impossible to use photos of the real Holocaust. You can’t use these photos like that.

IB Why not?

CB Because they are—because you can’t use it.

IB You said they were sacred, didn’t you?

CB Yes, this is not a good thing. If people know the material is from the Holocaust, they can’t think about anything else. The first time I showed The Lycee Chases was in Germany and everybody spoke to me about Nazis and all that. I said, “Yes, it’s true, it’s about that, but it’s also about all of us.” The idea when I rephotographed this little photo—it just seemed like dead people. I think we all have our death inside us. It’s more evident in that case but it’s also you, it’s also everybody, not only a Jewish person. I am speaking about that but I think and I hope to make a larger work, not only to speak about the Holocaust.

Who can be Jewish in my work, was an idea. For me there are two kind of artists, the victim and the killers. Most of the good artists are killers. But I am closer to the victim artist. There are artists who are like tanks. Some of my favorite artists like Richard Serra or Kiefer are like a tank and there are some artists who are much closer to the Zen or Hasidic philosophies. They make little jokes and tell little stories and they ask questions and have no answer.

For me, the Jewish tradition is very important. My work is rather light, I can take it with me, travel with it and as a work—I always try to escape with a little joke. It’s really very serious and at the same time it’s only a little joke. And sometimes it’s a little shadow theater, as in Les Ombres. Where the installation is comprised of the play of shadow cast by these scrawny puppets I made from refuse and common materials. I think this relation between being very important and not important is something very Jewish.

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Christian Boltanski, Les Archives, 1987 from Lessons of Darkness, 1988 at MOCA, room installation of 366 photographs in taped glass mounts on six metal screens, 151 × 157½ inches. Collection, Anne and William J. Hokin, Chicago.

IB The self-deprecation.

CB Yes. And it’s also art from being sure of nothing, not sure of art and not sure of myself, perhaps that is some kind of Jewish tradition. To be drawn to one thing and its opposite at the same time. But, in another way I am sure there’s a Christian influence in my work. I don’t know so much about the Catholic religion, but I think it’s a bit in the spirit of the work.

IB Did you see the film, Wings of Desire?

CB Yes, three times. One time three days ago.

IB There, the children could see the angels. It sounds like what you’re saying is that, really, the artist can too.

CB Yes, the artist is like an angel, a little. We are like angels because, just like I told you, we’re not in the world in a way, we’re a little outside. We don’t live anymore when we are artists. When Proust began to write, he didn’t live anymore. He stayed at home and he wrote. Very often when you begin to create something…

IB It takes over.

CB It takes over and you don’t need to live anymore.

IB Are you obsessive about working?

CB I work a lot, yes.

IB Can you speak about the tin boxes? You filled them with ordinary, intimate objects and used them almost like a diary. There’s something about the massing of them that feels…

CB They are minimal objects. That is true. At the same time they are also objects everybody has at home, in France, biscuit tins. When you are a child you put your precious things in them. It is, at the same time a minimal object and something that is very close to people.

IB So it’s your first museum as a child.

CB That’s true. And in some of the pieces there’s some kind of secret, because there’s always something in the box. If you have a box you must put something in it. There’s a minimal vision—I am an artist of the ’70s—but at the same time I try to use objects and forms that everybody knows and that everybody can be touched by. I want only to touch people.

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Christian Boltanski, Vitrine de Reference, 1971, wooden vitrine with various objects, 60 x 50 x 33 inches.

IB I wonder if we’re changing in some ways. I once found out that the word “to think” in Chinese was the two hieroglyphs, brain and heart and it feels like so much of what has gone on in the West in terms of art has been just pure head.

CB Yes and to say an awful thing, for myself, I am really happy if people cry a lot when they’re looking at my work. Or laugh a lot, if their reactions are very precise. When you see a movie, you can see it on different levels. You can see the movie and cry, and I cry very often, but for the same movie you can say the images are very beautiful or the form is very beautiful and in my work I try to do that. You can see it on one level and I like this level to have some kind of emotion, but you can also, if you want, find something about the form and about art. You know I am an artist of the second part of the 20th century and that means two of my grandfathers were Beuys and Warhol.

IB The saint and the sinner.

CB You know what I think? They are really the same person. But Beuys is an optimist, a religious man and Warhol, the pessimist, is anti-religious. His last work was a white angel and a black angel, but they are the same person. The two faces are the same person.

IB That’s where the con man and the saint come very close together.

CB Yes. You know in my catalog for the Pompidou Center, I included a photo of Robert Mitchum from this beautiful movie by Charles Laughton called The Night of the Hunter. Robert Mitchum plays a false preacher who believes in God but at the same time, he’s a murderer. I think we are like that or I am like that. When we sell something it’s very strange. If I give you this box of matches and say it’s a piece of art you are going to give me money for that. It’s very close to African sorcery, you are going to take that because you know it’s very important and you know you are going to be happier after, and it’s only because I have touched it. It’s only because I have said it’s important.

A few years ago when I had a show in Zurich in the Kunsthaus, the curator told me that in the Bank of Zurich you have plenty of Paul Klees because when a company is making money, they put half in gold and half in Paul Klee in the Swiss bank. At first, I thought it was awful, and then I began to think that was so beautiful in a way, that Paul Klee was nothing, a little piece of paper, so fragile and for the Swiss people who are very serious, it’s the same thing as gold. It’s magic, for gold is also magic.

IB We’re looking at an anthropological catalogue of shamanistic art and there’s one piece which is a mask with a shaman spirit and it looks so much like Les Ombres.

CB You know, I don’t know anything about shamanism or anthropology. And I really don’t care. I go rather often to the anthropology museum in Paris, the Musee de L’Homme, but it’s for another reason. It’s a very old museum with very large vitrines and in each vitrine is a culture, a dead culture. That means you have a little object, and it’s quite impossible to understand what was the use of this little object. You have a photo, generally a very old photo of a “savage” making something with this little object and you can’t understand it. The only thing you know is that this man is dead, that this culture is dead. One no longer knows how to use the objects and the vitrine is a kind of large tomb. You have a very large room with perhaps ten big vitrines, and each vitrine is just like a large tomb of a culture. This was a very important influence for me. I did several pieces where I made or collected artifacts, everyday objects from people’s lives and displayed them in vitrines.

IB At one point you were talking about simultaneously being one of the chosen people but also being one of the last men—an extinct race.

CB That’s why the Jewish are mad. Because they know, and we know, that we are the son of God, chosen by God, but we also know—everybody said—we are the most awful thing in the world and we are the last of man. For years and years we were always considered the worst of people, and at the same time we knew we were chosen by God. We have these two contradictory things that make the Jewish people so strange.

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Christian Boltanski, Composition Classique, 1982.

IB There’s that polarity between the darkness and the light showing up again.

CB You know the Lessons of Darkness is very Catholic. It’s a special mass, I think there are three masses three days before the Sanctus Friday, the Friday before Easter. This mass begins at five o’clock in the afternoon, and in the beginning, when you arrive, you have daylight: and coming out, when it’s finished, it’s dark. At the end of the mass they switch off all the candles and lights: people go slowly into the darkness. The music for this special mass is called “The Sense of Darkness” because it’s going into sadness in the darkness. If my show works, it must work a little like that. At the beginning of the installation, there is some light and the more you walk, the more it’s dark and the more it’s sad. The last room, the archive room, is very, very sad. It’s a very little room with 400 people inside. Here are all the photos I use and reuse in my life, my archive.

Now the other piece with the cardboard boxes, that’s another story. There’s a magazine in France, called Detective, it’s a crime magazine. I have several years of this magazine, ’72 and ’73 and I cut out all the photos…

IB There are no captions, you took them away.

CB Yes and I taped the photos onto the front of these cardboard boxes. Now it’s impossible to know who is the victim and who is the murderer, because half are murderers and half are victims. And in the boxes you have the stories of these people, but you can’t open the boxes. If you opened the cardboard box you wouldn’t understand anything anyway because the stories and the faces are mixed up. When you see a face on the cardboard box, it’s not that person’s story that’s inside, it’s another story. The idea of the work is that perhaps we’re all both murderer and victim.

IB Carl Jung talked about the shadow in people—l’ombre—the dark side of our nature. He believed we let other people live it out for us. That’s what the “other” is. When we refuse to accept that quality in ourselves, we project it on the others, like the Germans projecting on the Jews. Every culture does it. So I’m wondering, is your work in some ways—is the murderer being satisfied in you by making the work? What would have happened if you couldn’t make art?

CB If I couldn’t make art I should be mad. I was very strange when I was young, very very strange. And art saved me—I’m sure of that. What is different about being an artist is that you don’t really live, you have no life anymore. If you are sad you speak about the sadness and give the sadness to other people. All your personal problems become collective problems.

You know I worked with Mail Art and a very long time ago I sent a lot of things to people, very strange things. The last thing I sent was a letter from somebody who was going to kill himself. I called the piece Handwritten letter “asking for help” and I sent it to 60 persons.

IB That was your suicide note?

CB It did not really say ’I’m going to commit suicide.’ It said I’m really bad and I know everybody hates me and all that. I am sure that if I was not an artist I would have sent a letter like this because I was really depressed at the time, perhaps I should have killed myself. But I was an artist and I sent 60 letters, all handwritten, all exactly the same. I thought it was a good piece: it saved me. My problem became a collective problem. I was writing something about a man who was going to kill himself. And, then, I knew that I didn’t have to kill myself anymore.

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Christian Boltanski, Bougie (Candle), 1987, copper figurine on tin shelf with candle, 4 x 1½ x 12½ inches.

IB In the making of it there was the transformation.

CB Yes. I mean artists are always playing with life. It was a little like children playing, fighting together and one says I’m dead,” but when his mother says, “Tea time,” he gets up. Artists are a little like that.

IB There is a strong relationship to theater and the actor here.

CB Yes, sure. It’s a little like a theater play without text… art is artifice you know, and we are pretenders. I am a liar. And I am really a liar.

IB Did you lie about your birthday or were you really born on Liberation Day?

CB It’s true, but I am a liar. It’s true that my middle name is Freedom.

IB I didn’t know if those things were fictions as well.

CB That’s true. But it’s also true that I am a liar. Art is always something about lies.

IB It’s said that at some level criminals want to be found out and in a perfect crime they make one mistake. It’s like your pieces where you show the wires in the lamps, all that stuff.

CB I want people to see that. I want that there. It’s very important for me that I always make all the work. American artists have too many assistants. I do everything all by myself, that means, all my frames and everything. I want it to look like homemade cake, you know, that touch, and for me my work is never perfect. I want that. It’s a little dirty or destroyed.

IB Eva Hesse called it “the mark of the hand.”

CB Yes. I think it is very very important. I think very often here the work is so perfect that the emotion has gone. I think it’s good when you are doing this kind of work, spending a long time making it; … you can think.

IB Jung wrote that alchemy was really about the transformation of the alchemist, not the material.

CB That’s good. Thank you. I have to go.

Irene Borger is a writer and dance ethnologist living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. She is currently working on a book of short stories.

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Originally published in

BOMB 26, Winter 1989

Jon Robin Baitz, David Cronenberg, Harry Mathews, Richard Martin, Peter Ackroyd, Annette Messager, Javier Vallhonrat, Jodi Long, Christian Boltanski, and Kenji Fujita.

Read the issue
026 Winter 1988 89