October 20, 2020

Christian Boltanski: “My trauma is my date of birth” | Babelia

His studio, a former woodworking workshop in the Parisian suburb of Malakoff, is full of giant babies. Christian boltanski (Paris, 1944) spent a good part of the confinement enlarging hundreds of images of newborns that he found in an old Polish newspaper, as if he hoped those offspring would infect him with the desire to be reborn. The artist, who just starred a tremendous retrospective at the Center Pompidou, the last of the consecrations in a long trajectory marked by the question of memory and oblivion, he now considers what his next step will be in a moment of maximum uncertainty, for the world and for his own work.

Question. How have you lived this strange year?

Reply. The truth is that I am very depressed. Many artists spend their lives confined, but not me. Giacometti never left his study, except to go to the bistro and the brothel, but I have a great need to be active. Maybe because I am a natural pessimist and I need to fill my time with many things. So I avoid finding myself alone and thinking too much …

Large format positives from the 'Chance' series in Christian Boltanski's workshop.
Large format positives from the ‘Chance’ series in Christian Boltanski’s workshop.

P. He maintains that every artist works from an original trauma. What would yours be?

R. My trauma is my date of birth. I was born right at the end of the Second World War and grew up listening to my parents’ friends, Holocaust survivors, tell their sad stories for nights. Since I was a baby I knew that the world is a terrible place and that we were all going to die. Art has been like a very slow psychoanalysis through which that trauma has made me a little more bearable.

P. In fact, his work is usually linked to the Jewish experience.

R. Actually, I am not Jewish. My mother was a Catholic and my father a converted Jew. I made my first communion, I loved catechesis, and I haven’t been to a synagogue in my entire life. In my work I have wanted to reflect a more universal dimension and I have not used the Shoah even once in my work. What happens is that my father spent almost two years hiding from the Nazis under the floor of our house. My mother made it appear that they had separated. I slept all my childhood in my parents’ room and did not go out alone until I was 18 years old. I inherited their fear of a massacre that never really ended. We continue to live surrounded by massacre, although we believe we are in a period of truce.

A photographic roll from the 'Chance' series, made up of hundreds of images of Polish babies.
A photographic roll from the ‘Chance’ series, made up of hundreds of images of Polish babies.

P. And, despite everything, you consider yourself culturally Japanese …

R. I am interested in Buddhism and Shintoism because they are religions in which, as in Judaism, you don’t have to believe in God to be religious: just try to find him. Furthermore, the Japanese destroy their temples every 20 years and rebuild them identically, albeit with inevitable variations. I do the same with my work: I destroy about 90% of my work and then I recreate it when the occasion requires it. It is like a musical score: the base is always the same, but there are infinite variations in the way of interpreting it.

P. Does your work pay homage to the anonymous, to those forgotten by official history?

R. Each person is wonderful for being unique in the world and, at the same time, the vast majority of us will be victims of oblivion. I am interested in the contrast between the importance of the individual and her inexorable disappearance. My activity consists in remembering those who disappear. I always say that everyone over 60 deserves a museum for the simple fact of having lived …

One of the preparatory drawings for the work 'Théâtre d'Hombres' (1984), by Christian Boltanski.
One of the preparatory drawings for the work ‘Théâtre d’Hombres’ (1984), by Christian Boltanski.

P. What changes at 60?

R. You have the feeling of having done something with your life. But it didn’t happen to me, because I’ve had a weird existence. I didn’t go to school or really get married [su pareja es la artista Annette Messager, que vive a varias calles de su estudio], I did not have children nor did I have a real job. Life is marked by those rites of passage that give you the feeling of progress, but I have not experienced any of them. I didn’t even do military service. He was a very strange young man, a little retarded. When I introduced myself, they said: “We don’t want this one.” Better for everyone …

P. What is the importance of emotion in your work?

R. I always say that I am a sentimental minimalist. My vocabulary is typical of minimalism, because that was the moment in which I was trained as an artist, but I gave importance to emotions, which my generation companions despised. Being an artist is asking unanswered questions, but also providing an iota of emotion. Just arouse that emotion is never enough, but just asking questions is not enough …

P. Would you say that we are entering a new world?

R. I don’t believe those people who say they will never use the car or consume again. I believe that we will forget about this virus, because we cannot live without forgetting. Life is so horrifying that if we remembered everything, we would not be able to live.

Work tools on the artist's desk.
Work tools on the artist’s desk.

P. What will change for art?

R. Nothing. The small galleries will continue to suffer, and the large ones, enriching themselves. But difficulties are not always bad for an artist. I believe in universal basic income for everyone except artists. Art is an elitist system, but that means that those who are not essential, who are a multitude, are left out. In 40 years as a fine arts teacher, I have only had six students who were good artists. Being an artist is not a profession, but an almost mystical quest. An artist has to wander, gossip, waste time. The worst thing that can happen to you is turning professional. And I, unfortunately, have turned professional …


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