“Christian Boltanski and the Disruption of Memory” – Written by Allen Ley (Carleton University)


Christian Boltanski, Monument, 1986, thirty-eight black-and-white and color photographs in tin frames, with fifteen lights, 115 x 280 cm, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned to the ground.

World without end, remember me…

Laurie Anderson

In the late 1980s, Christian Boltanski created a travelling installation entitled Lessons of Darkness that was exhibited in galleries in the United States in order to further expose his works to American audiences.  Within this installation were several individual pieces from earlier European exhibitions, each one taking a structure of a public memorial.  These pieces were created by Boltanski as a way of dealing with his own personal grief and memories that were linked to the atrocities of the Holocaust.  In looking at one of these individual pieces as a representative of the whole installation (figure 1), it is possible to peel away the surface to find unique artistic motivations that are evident in the exhibition as a whole. In particular, I will argue that this archive-like installation acts as a disruptive force in the popular memory of the Holocaust in twentieth-century France.

The notion of an artwork being disruptive to the collective popular memory can be linked to the French philosopher Michel Foucault.  During an interview in 1974, Foucault was asked to comment on the new cultural trend of film making that evoked issues surrounding World War II and the Holocaust.  In typical fashion, Foucault framed his response to the question to address cultural and political issues at large.  In describing these films, Foucault suggests that there is a much more insightful understanding of this trend, and describes the films as being part of a genuine resistance  that occurs in the present over what he defines as “popular memory” of the past history of the French involvement in the war.[1]  As Orly Shevi has noted in his research on Holocaust art, many subsequent thinkers and scholars have appropriated this notion of the “site of memory” in discussions surrounding Holocaust art and contemporary culture.[2]  Pierre Nora writes about les lieux de memoire in his collection of essays on the history of France, using the term to describe public visual representations of history as places where the “equilibrium between the present and past is disrupted”.[3]  More recently, Lisa Saltzman has expanded this reference to refer to contemporary memorial art installations, such as Boltanski’s Missing House and the Washington Vietnam Memorial, as “sights of memory”.  She argues that artists such as Boltanski produce “a sight, that is to say, a display, a spectacle, rather than a site, that is to say, a place, a location, of and for the work of remembrance”.[4]

The historical and cultural backdrop against which Foucault’s remarks can be positioned has been remarked upon by many authors and philosophers.  In the wake of the genocide that occurred during World War II, discussion of the atrocities that had been visited upon Jewish citizens was rarely discussed in a public forum.  In a conversation that Jean-Paul Sartre had with Raymond Aron in 1945, Sartre noted this silence by stating that:

We asked ourselves the question why is there not one single article, not one that says: ‘Welcome home to Jews, back once more in the French community.’  The fundamental reason for this silence is that what had happened had been erased.[5]

Later writers have also remarked upon this pervasive silence.  Benjamin Buchloh, in writing about artistic practices during the period of 1958 to 1968 has noted that “most of the practices of the visual neo-avant-garde were thus formulated as part of a larger project of social modernization and amnesia.”[6] However, this state of denial could not last forever. The author Max Silverman has argued that at the turn of the 1970s, the death of Charles de Gaulle in 1969, along with the challenge to the “great resistance myth that he personified”, cleared the way for a cultural re-evaluation of the questions surrounding anti-Semitism, as well as the relationship between the Vichy  government and the Nazi ‘final solution’.[7] It is amidst this re-evaluation of the French public memory that the artist Christian Boltanski was beginning his career as a professional artist.

Christian Boltanski was born in Paris on September 6, 1944, to a Ukrainian Jewish father and a Corsican mother shortly after the liberation of France at the end of World War II.  Boltanski’s early years were marked by the Nazi occupation of France, which forced his father to go into hiding under the floorboards of their family home after publicly staging a divorce from his wife, who was a Catholic. Boltanski grew up having to deal with suspicion and close scrutiny from the community, forcing him to fashion a type of split identity by being caught between a Catholic mother and the suffering of his Jewish father.[8] In 1958, after leaving school around the age of 12, he began to create artistic works whose themes centered on macabre historical subjects. He eventually gave up painting in favor of photography and sculpture, and it was around this time, in 1968, that his first solo exhibition, La vie impossible de Christian Boltanski (The Impossible Life of Christian Boltanski), was held in Paris. He uses materials such as photographs, postcards, newspapers, and family photo albums that are traditionally found in quotidian places.  His work addresses issues around the concepts of loss, memory, childhood, and death, often functioning as memorials or shrines to collective cultural memories and events. Many of his installations reference lives that were lost during the Holocaust, echoing personal as well as public memories.[9]

Although Boltanski himself was not a direct victim of the atrocities of the Holocaust, the memories that were passed on to him through family oral and narrative traditions place him within the model of the ‘postmemory artist’ that has been developed by Marianne Hirsch.  She positions the postmemory artist as part of the “generation after”, which has a “unique relationship to the personal, collective and cultural trauma of those who came before”.[10]  What is unique about this form of memory transfer is that the experiences passed on to the second generation of survivors are so profound and traumatic that they disrupt the memory process by creating the sense that these transferred memories are ultimately part of their own individual memories.  Applying Hirsch’s model to an artist like Christian Boltanski, we are presented with an individual whose connection to his past is “mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection and creation.”[11]  In examining the image of Memorial, 1986 from Lessons of Darkness, I would argue that we are dealing with an artist who is seeking to disrupt public memories by the use of his own “disrupted” memories of the events he wishes to examine.

Boltanski works to disrupt the French public memory surrounding the Holocaust by undermining the traditional form of the public memorial itself. The pieces that comprise Boltanski’s Lessons of Darkness, such as the image under examination in this paper, take the form of public memorials and archives of the lost yet they are not constructed from traditional memorial materials, such as stone and marble.  Instead, Boltanski uses small black and white photographs of children that are framed with tin, which are subsequently mounted on the gallery wall in geometrical patterns.  They are in turn surrounded by small, incandescent light bulbs.  Boltanski further disrupts the traditional form of the memorial with the layers of tangled black wires that lead to the small lamps, which in turn also disrupts the symmetrical ordering of the images.[12]  These installation pieces echo the form of the traditional Byzantine icon, with the electric lights replacing the devotional candles that would surround these altars.  The photographs of the colored metallic wrapping paper are also reminiscent of the hammered surfaces that were constructed from gold and copper.  What is unique about this is the fact that Boltanski, in using materials associated with Christmas and times of more joyful forms of remembering, shatters the tools of remembrance by evoking public memories of war instead of peace.[13]  In challenging the construction of the public war memorial, I would argue that Boltanski is disrupting the French public memory of the Holocaust by challenging the very structure of traditional visual structures of grief and remembrance.

Looking closer at the materials used in the creation of this piece, it can be argued that Boltanski further disrupts the process of memory in his use of the photograph. Boltanski’s exploitation of the medium of photography in the installation also has a disruptive force due to the very nature of the photograph itself. In using the photographic image instead of a painted canvas, Boltanski is underscoring the relationship between photography and the archive by using these images as both historical referents and as mnemonic devices to disrupt the viewer’s memory of the past.  Boltanski complicates the viewer’s relationship with photography in that the images of the children’s heads are actually photographs of photographs, which create sensations of looking at a ghost or a corpse with their resulting heightened chiaroscuro. In her collection of essays on photography, Susan Sontag argued that:

A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.[14]

John Berger has built on this idea to construct a model of how photographs interact with memory.  He argues that photographs can be positioned as the “prophecy of the human memory yet to be socially and politically achieved.”[15]  In this context, Boltanski has created a discursive space between the viewer and the photographs that moves the artistic image into the realm of the “real” by drawing on the photographic traditions of the documentary and the indexical.  He has also emphasized the inherent relationship between photography, memory and death.  Photographs, like memory, fade and perish in their own unique way as they are constructed from paper.[16]  As John Berger has argued, photographs are traces of the past and all that has happened.  Boltanski is effectively challenging the French public to take these fictive parts of the past that he has created and to inculcate them into the collective memory. In doing so, these images “reacquire a living context” that allows them to “continue to exist in time, instead of being arrested moments.”[17]

Boltanski’s Lessons of Darkness also disrupts the public memory of the Holocaust by directly challenging the nature of both the museum and the archive.  As Ernst Van Alphen has argued, the artistic works that are deemed to be the most appropriate for depicting the atrocities committed during World War II are “those that are history par excellence” and do not present a “fictional account of history, but that offer history in its most direct, tangible form”.[18] This idea, however, becomes problematic when dealing with the nature of the archive.  An archive cannot be truly seen as a complete historical narrative in that it contains carefully selected remnants by archivists or artists, which are in nature only “material traces of the past”.[19]  The traditional role of the historical archivist has often been placed within the realms of government and public service.  The decisions of what is stored, as well as for how long, are functions of the state on behalf of the public at large. For Boltanski, locating a site that mediates between the chronicles of history and memory exists through his unique fictive collection of evidentiary documents and photographs.  These objects serve to concatenate history and memory to the discursive space of the archive.  As Hal Foster has noted, artists such as Boltanski seek to make historical information that is often lost or displaced physically present in the gallery space. Boltanski fits Foster’s model of the archival artist in that he elaborates “on the found image, object, and text” and favoring the installation format.[20]  Thus, Boltanski’s construction of an artistic “memory archive” serves to relocate both memory and history to the present by combining the use of actual and simulated objects from history.

Rebecca DeRoo has noted that the seemingly commonplace materials that make up this work were praised by critics for making the French museum space more accessible to the general public.  They also praised Boltanski for creating a space that allowed for a unique, personal viewing experience by “providing new ways for viewers to access and identify with previously unrepresented experiences, while making the museum a collective site of identification”.[21]  On the surface, it would appear that this particular piece from Lessons from Darkness is a work that mediates the spaces between personal and collective memories, both on the part of the viewer and the artists.  However, this interpretation becomes complicated if one looks closer at the archive that Boltanski has created with this installation.  One has to shed the notion that these materials are being presented in a straightforward, honest fashion as historical narratives, and realize that Boltanski has appropriated the role of a Holocaust historian and has reframed it as an artistic practice.[22]  In using this type of fictive archive, Boltanski has presented a work that Van Alphen describes as creating a “sense of Holocaust” rather than a simple representation of the Holocaust. [23] I would argue that this appropriation of a government function by the artist is disruptive to the public memory in that it challenges the viewer to question if what has traditionally been presented as the official French public recollection is indeed the only way to remember the story.

In an interview with Gloria Moore, Boltanski stated the he believes “that there is often a determining event at the beginning of an artist’s life that influences all his later work.”[24]  He refers to this as a type of journey in which he retells these memories “over and over again in different ways for years.”[25]  Ernst Van Alphen, in writing about contemporary Holocaust art, has said that “the cultural responsibility that befalls those living now” is “to establish contact with the ‘past’ part of the present survivors; to integrate them, with their past, into our present.”[26]  Both of these quotes relate directly to what Foucault had outlined as the fundamental problem in representations of the past.

Orly Shevi argues that Foucault defined the solution to this by highlighting two key tasks that he defines as the challenges for contemporary artists in disrupting the established public memory of the atrocities of World War II.  First, he tasked them with subverting the traditional content that is used to perpetuate the same historical lesson that is offered by those in power.  The second task was to take this subverted content and reshape it with new forms and artistic strategies.  In accomplishing this, Foucault argued that these new art works would reveal that official public memories were a type of political apparatus, and that new visual representations should ultimately sever the traditional memories from them.[27]  I would argue that Boltanski has been successful in rising to Foucault’s challenge by altering the traditional forms of artistic monuments.  In this act of disruption, Boltanski has re-written the role of the traditional historian by changing the artistic materials of remembrance and by installing them in the gallery space to confront public memories at large.  I would also argue that Marianne Hirsch’s model of the postmemory could be expanded to include the collective culture of memory in the world at large as well as the country of France.  Boltanski’s work effectively disrupts and displaces our shared public memories of the past by mediating with viewers.  He accomplishes this by forcing us to recognize our own individual post-generational memories of the Holocaust, thus challenging and confronting the established historical narrative in an intimately personal way.

[2] Orly Shevi, Memory and Power: Reflections on History, Memory, and Auschwitz in Contemporary Art and Film (San Diego: University of California Press, 2010), 3.

[5] Cited in Max Silverman, Facing Postmodernity: Contemporary French Thought on Culture and Society (London: Routledge, 1999), 10.

[6] Benjamin Buchloh, “The Primary Colors for the Second Time: A Paradigm Repetition of the Neo-Avant-Garde,” October 37 (Summer 1986): 260.

[11] ibid

[16] Gumpert and Boltanski, Christian Boltanski, 80.

[17] John Berger, About Looking, 61.

[18] Ernst Van Alphen, “Visual Archives as Preposterous History”, Art History 30.2 (2007): 364.

[19] ibid

[20] Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse”, October 110 (2004):  4.

[21] Rebecca J. De Roo, “Christian Boltanski’s Memory Images: Remaking French Museums in the Aftermath of ‘68”, Oxford Art Journal 27.2 (2004): 221

[22]Ernst Van Alphen, ”Visual Archives as Preposterous History”, 366.

[23] Ibid, 368.

[25] ibid

[27] Orly Shevi, Memory and Power, 8.

Written by Allen Ley in his 4th Year at Carleton University in 2012.

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