法国艺术家克里斯蒂安·波尔坦斯基（Christian Boltanski）的个展“忆所（Storage Memory）”在上海当代艺术博物馆（PSA）一楼偌大的空间里，拔地而起两件体积庞大的巨型装置——“无人”和“机遇·命运之轮”——仿若“上帝之手”的机械抓钩反复选取着下方数以吨计的、成山峦状的衣服；无数婴儿照片在巨型脚手架装置内随机动停等待着一次次甄选，它们似乎正为可视化“命运如何运转”这一提问做出演示，作为前置问题，展览就此开始。
The Individual Will Not Remain ilent
The King of Spades, the Queen of Hearts, the Jack of Clubs and the Six of Diamonds: if we shuffle the cards again will their destinies be altered? Will the ‘babies’ delivered by the roaring conveyor belt installation become the next revolutionaries – or urban dropouts?
At the French artist Christian Boltanski’s solo exhibition Storage Memory , at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, two huge-scale installation works – Personnes (People/No one) and Chance: Wheel of Fortune -rise up dramatically from the vast ground-floor space. A mechanical claw, like ‘the hand of God’, clutches repeatedly at the tons of clothes piled up below in a huge heap; inside a large scaffolding installation, countless photographs of babies move, then come to an abrupt halt, waiting for the selection process that is constantly repeated. It’s as though they are performing a visualisation in response to the question ‘How does destiny move?’ And, with this question emphasised up front, the show begins.
Although the title of this exhibition is likely to lead to a focus on memory, we cannot ignore the fact that the main division between the individual and memory is forgetting. Rather than expressing its concern for memory in the ontological sense, the exhibition is more a way of resisting forgetting, and thus allowing the individual to exist forever in the artist’s syntax. So, whose memory does Storage Memory actually store? The object that is missing here is ‘the individual’ concerned. And my focus in this review relates specifically to the question of how the use of ‘portraits’ in Boltanski’s works has composed an ‘ode to the individual’.
Leaving the two huge installations behind, the work Humans , made up of more than a hundred gauze sheets and light bulbs, floats like a ghost in mid-air, on the second floor of the PSA. Indeed, the whole second-floor gallery has been divided up into a corridor linking several ‘rooms’: in the work Corridor of Lightbulbs , more than a hundred black coats are suspended, conveying a sense of being at death’s door – and the low-wattage tungsten-filament light bulbs that accompany them also seem to be hanging on by a thread.
As soon as you set foot in the entrance to the ‘colonnade’ you see an installation made up of faces of children and a supporting framework (Behind the images , 1996). Influenced by the faces, the framework seems to be playing the role of a body in their midst. Gazing at the faces of the people in these photographs, one sees what are clearly not their wrinkles but are actually folds or damage to the pictures – yet in the atmosphere that Boltanski creates, the features of the people and the images seem logically suited to each other, as if… as if, even though the people in these photographs will never grow old, they will still age as a result of the material of which the images are made.
‘Individual’, ‘destiny’, ‘death’, ‘memory’… These key words have lingered constantly along Boltanski’s creative path. The vast majority of people are thoroughly convinced by them – but what concerns me more is how the confirmation of the individual is implemented here. Or to go further, how does a photographic portrait live up to its name, like a living person? It’s as though, before this kind of confirmation can take place, it’s not possible to start discussing these key words about which people talk so much.
In the artist’s linguistic system, it seems, in fact, to have been tacitly agreed that one portrait or one garment is equivalent in value to one individual. However, people these days can no longer return to an age when seeing the Veil of Veronica was equivalent to seeing the true face of Jesus; nor can we go back to the days when photography was so misunderstood that people believed that if a camera took their picture it would take away their soul.
To summarise, this kind of benediction, in which people believe so deeply, can, perhaps, be boiled down to two aspects: on the one hand, the use of photos and artefacts in Boltanski’s work suggests that we really only need people to exist or to have existed, and do not need their essential nature or character. On the other hand, once a photograph has been endowed with the authority that comes with it being a symbol of life, it must, to ensure that it does not lose this authority, continue to be stored in some structure of a ceremonial nature – such as the artist’s altar – or in shrine-like installations, with the light bulbs that suggest a memorial service and the ceremonies that come from some unknown religion… From this moment onwards, the people and their portraits not only resemble each other, they also perpetuate each other, affect each other – they are both visible images and invisible bodies.
The portrait is without a doubt the external form that most directly expresses individual characteristics. The large-scale use of portraits has accounted for a huge proportion of the works that Boltanski has created since the 1990s. Looking back now, it seems like a fateful coincidence that, in around 1986, the first work in which the artist used a portrait as source material was called Veronica : the portrait was simply a close-up of a woman’s head, but it was placed under a hazy veil, which seemed to create the illusion that it was alive, as though it had a body. Through the use of this famous classical allusion, the work predicted the authority of the portrait and the power of analogy, and exerted an extraordinary influence on the artist’s subsequent creative career.
However, portraits in themselves raise many doubts, and we may well need to ask precisely where these pictures came from. Which phase of an individual’s timeline are they from? Because we all know that before a ‘face’ attains its final appearance, it must battle for the remainder of its life, right up to the final moment of death. In the exhibition, Detective Altar and Social News are placed facing each other in the same room; although these two works are very different in their external structure, what connects them is the source of the portraits, which come from newspapers, with various people mixed up together. Yes, there are criminals and victims, deceased Swiss people and children from Dijon in France. And simply by looking at their faces, it’s quite impossible to judge on which side of the divide between good and evil in a civilised society they stand. And now they are all gone. In this way, Boltanski has built a cemetery devoted to peace. And this gives us further confirmation of the artist’s credo when it concerns ‘the ode to the individual’: he does not worry about individual character or choosing people based on their qualities; rather, he builds the work on an innate respect for the individual. As Tzvetan Todorov put it: ‘Since people are not all base or unworthy of mention, and since they deserve respect, does this not prove that people should be carefully depicted?’ Clearly, Boltanski’s depictions are not intended to be an aestheticised portrayal of an individual, as in fifteenth – century portraiture, but form part of a broader, more general paean to humanity, which is unprecedented in its universal love for humankind.
To remove human beings from society or ethics, so that they become pure individuals, and then to treat them indiscriminately -or to put it another way, to lump them all together – has long been Boltanski’s ideal; indeed, this ‘lumping together’ may even be expressed by a crossing of the boundaries between life and death. The artist has previously mixed up portraits of the living and the dead, with the result that it can be equally hard to judge whether these images are the last glimpse of the world of the living before they bid farewell, or a means of extending the world of the dead. Perhaps the important thing is that the tone of the works that stand in front of us seems to suggest a greater tendency towards a kind of symbol of ‘having existed’. Here the artist has monumentalised ‘individuals’. In fact, this type of monumentalisation is an approach he has used frequently, as can be seen in works such as the Altar series, the Monuments series, Scraping , Behind the Images and After – DOPO .
Thus we can, of course, say that the artist has a pronounced inclination to become a Creator, yet at the same time we cannot deny that the subjects he is concerned about really are founded on the broad macro-perspective of the individual human being. If the sending of the first man-made satellite into space in 1957 – described by Hannah Arendt as ‘second in importance to no other’ – was a moment of progress in the annals of human history, it actually also provided a new angle for assessing the condition of humankind, because the idea that human beings could move to another planet was probably the greatest transformation people could imagine in those days. To a certain extent, this reflects a pattern comparable to Boltanski’s practice – sparing no effort to construct and make metaphors for the plight of humankind.
Finally, I want to return to the frequently discussed key words that I mentioned earlier: ‘individual’, ‘destiny’, ‘death’, ‘memory’… Here they can finally be elaborated on: ‘individual’ refers to the praising of every individual without favouritism; ‘destiny’, a calm assessment of the cycle of human life; ‘death’ focuses on the inevitability of one’s own passage towards death; ‘memory’ refers to creating an everlasting ‘archive’ that will do its utmost to combat amnesia. Ultimately they converge, and history and characters from the distant past can re-emerge and, in the midst of a crisis that is shaking humankind’s consciousness, return to remodel themselves.
Leaving the main gallery, I went inside the PSA’s chimney, where there was an installation in which a light flashed in time with Boltanski’s own heartbeat. I have never been able to work out whether this was a case of some kind of narcissism on the part of an artist with a Creator complex, or whether he was using it as a subtle way of hinting at his respect for other individuals’ perceptions of self. In the final analysis, the feeble flickering light bulb seemed to be imminently awaiting the moment of its final demise; so, should we start to worry about the weakness of the human life with which the light shares a common destiny? On the day I left Storage Memory , I suddenly felt as I caught sight of the thermometer-shaped symbol that has always adorned the top of the PSA’s chimney, that this seemed particularly well suited to the exhibition.
Translated by Duncan Hewitt