There are many striking elements in artist Christian Boltanski’s new work, Personnes: piles of clothing under cold fluorescent light, the sound of throbbing heartbeats, numbered boxes and a crane.
Ephemeral yet indelible, this is a work of contrasts. Personnes is about the Shoah and yet it is not. It is about death, and life. About individuals and masses. And about what God might, or might not, be.
“I do not work about the Shoah, I work ‘after’ the Shoah,” said Mr Boltanski, 65. “The real issue in my life is the Shoah. I can work around it, but not directly.”
Since it opened in mid-January, the exhibit — shown at the cathedral-like Grand Palais, and sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture — has become the talk of Paris, already attracting 100,000 visitors.
As they enter, they encounter a high wall of rusting metal boxes, affixed with four-digit numbers. Inside the vast hall, coats and sweaters are laid out in large squares.
There is also a mountain of clothes over which hovers a large, red claw, hanging from a crane. The claw, controlled by an unseen hand, is regularly lowered, grabs at the top of the pile, lifts its prize aloft, and then lets items of clothing tumble back to the pile.
In the background, there is the sound of 15,000 heartbeats, some of them belonging to visitors.
“Old clothes, or heartbeats — these were somebody,” Mr Boltanski said. “These are objects. But the subjects are missing.”
Although the Shoah is not mentioned by any explanatory text, Mr Boltanski has been defined by it. He was conceived while his father, a French Jew of Ukrainian background, was hiding in the apartment of his Corsican, Catholic mother.
His father, a doctor, “tried so much to be French”, said Mr Boltanski. But “during the war it was the French police who tried to catch him.”
Following his father’s example, Mr Boltanski never dared walk outside alone until he was 18 years old.
“I learned that everyone can be dangerous, anyone can kill you.”
He quit formal schooling early to pursue his artistic leanings. With his many works tapping into subconscious fears and using Holocaust references, he has drawn both praise and criticism. Some might argue that this subject defies any artist’s attempts to grasp it. And Mr Boltanski agrees.
“After Lanzmann, it is totally impossible to do a work about the Shoah,” he said, referring to French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, whose ground-breaking documentaries include the 9-hour Shoah (1985).
“My work is about chance and about God. I try to ask questions. In this case it is about chance: Why is this one going to die and why is that one not going to die? When I was four or five years old, all my parents’ friends were survivors. And this question was coming from these people.”
To Mr Boltanski, God is random.
“It is impossible for me to pray.”
Yet there is optimism to be found in his work, particularly in the surrounding sound of the heartbeats, which many visitors say sound like trains, the water or the sea.
Alicia Zaaton was one of those recording her heartbeat last week. She sat in a laboratory room with a technician who gave her a stethoscope. As her heartbeat galloped across the computer screen, she smiled.
“I am leaving a part of myself in this work,” she said. “This relationship between life and death is troubling. But this work allows you to think about life, to continue to live.”
Surrounded by piles of clothing, and enveloped in a chorus of throbbing heartbeats, Mr Boltanski adds: “I love life so much, also because I know I am going to die.”