You can tell the truth more truthfully than with the truth itself.
– Christian Boltanski
Christian Boltanski is a contemporary French Conceptual artist best known for his photographic installations. The artist explores life, death, and memory in his practice, often focusing on the Holocaust as he blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction. Born on September 6, 1944, in Paris, France to a Jewish father, the impact of World War II loomed throughout the artist’s life. Boltanski often has objects stand-in for absent subjects, bringing spirituality and meditation to his practice.
Boltanski began creating art in the late 1950s but didn’t rise to prominence until almost a decade later through a few short, Avante-Garde films and some published notebooks in which he referenced his childhood. Boltanski’s earliest works included imagery of ideal families and imaginary lifestyles (something Boltanski always lacked), made to display as if they were in museums.
In 1986, Boltanski began creating mixed media/materials installations with light as an essential concept. Tin boxes, altar-like construction of framed and manipulated photographs (e.g. Chases School, 1986–1987), photographs of Jewish schoolchildren taken in Vienna in 1931, used as a forceful reminder of mass murder of Jews by the Nazis, all those elements and materials used in his work are used in order to represent deep contemplation regarding the reconstruction of past. While creating Reserve (exhibition at Basel, Museum Gegenwartskunst, 1989), Boltanski filled rooms and corridors with worn clothing items as a way of inciting the profound sensation of the human tragedy at concentration camps. As in his previous works, objects serve as relentless reminders of human experience and suffering. His piece, Monument (Odessa), uses six photographs of Jewish students in 1939 and lights to resemble Yahrzeit candles to honor and remember the dead. “My work is about the fact of dying, but it’s not about the Holocaust itself.”
Additionally, his enormous installation titled “No Man’s Land” (2010) at the Park Avenue Armory in New York is a great example of how his constructions and installations trace the lives of the lost and forgotten. For his seminal work La traversée de la vie (2015), Boltanski used the same photographs as he had in 1971 for Album des photos de la Famille D.—the images were enlarged and printed on fabric and illuminated by hangings lightbulbs, inviting the viewer to walk through them. Christian Boltanski has participated in over 150 art exhibitions throughout the world. Among others, he had solo exhibitions at the New Museum (1988), the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Magasin 3 in Stockholm, the La Maison Rouge Gallery, Institut Mathildenhöhe, the Kewenig Galerie, The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, and many others. His work can be found in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Boltanski currently lives and works in Malakoff, France.
This photograph is part of his site-specific exhibition titled El Caso, conceived especially for the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. The portraits were selected from the archives of the Spanish magazine “El Caso”, whereby the artist creates a monument in reference to the past of the Centro de Arte building, previously the Provincial Hospital of Madrid. In this installation work, it is not clear whether the portraits are victims or murderers. The presence of large shelves packed with piles of creased, folded sheets portrays the idea of a hospital and a concentration camp. The artist uses this device repeatedly as a metaphor for the idea of something anonymous and unclassifiable and as a paradigmatic symbol of the death of contemporary society.