Chiara Bertola: I would like to approach your work through a series of objects and linguistic devices that seem to be paradigmatic for your practice. I would like to start for instance with cookie jars, which have been a leitmotiv in your work since the very beginning.
Christian Boltanski: The cookie jar has a minimal quality, which relates to the fact that I am an artist who shaped his practice during the time of Minimalism. However, quite contradictorily, I am also a sentimental artist. Therefore the cookie jar is something minimal and at the same time full of meaning. Everybody can recognize it. So it is an object that generates memories and also links to a place where we keep precious things — the strongbox for the poor — but also the cemetery, a place for human ashes.
CBe: An object that links a very personal and intimate sphere to the universal.
CBo: We can speak only of what we know. If I say: “I have a headache,” you understand. Your headache is not exactly like mine but there’s something in common. If I say, “My pancreas is ill,” I hope you won’t understand! We cannot convey something that the other doesn’t already know. As artists what we can do is work in the common space that belongs to everyone, though with some differences, and generate a different reading for everyone. The important thing about art is that it speaks about us, as ourselves, but at the same time, whoever looks at it can say, “It’s me, this is my story!” Because, as we know after Duchamp, it is the viewer who completes an artwork. For example, in the work L’ Album de la famille D. (1971), D. stands for Durant — the most common family name in France — and the family in the album is common, middle class. The photo album is a social repertoire in which the same images, depicting special moments, are repeated over and over again — feeding the newborn, building the house, Christmas. The most common thing is also the most universal. You read Proust not because he speaks about himself but rather because he speaks about you. When he talks about being a child alone in his room wishing for his mother to come, or even when he says that being jealous of a girl means loving her more… We have all gone through that. L’Album de la famille D. or any photo album is something that resembles us. I couldn’t use my own childhood because it was too strange and exceptional, so I used the one of my friend Michel Durant who had the most common childhood you can image.
CBe: Tell me about your strange and special childhood and about “Liberté,” the name given to you by your father.
CBo: My family is half Jewish and half Christian, and therefore we have double names. My brothers’ names for example are Jean Élie and Luc Emmanuel. Since I was born during the liberation of Paris my name is Liberté. There are several stories about my birth. My parents had many reasons to abort me because at that time they had divorced to preserve the majority of our wealth. Everybody knew my mother was alone because my father remained hidden under the floor for a year and a half. So, how could she explain her pregnancy?
CBe: Were you influenced by both the cultures you were born into?
CBo: It is not that easy. I was baptized, and when I was young I used to go to church. However, the Jewish side was much stronger and influential, and I felt linked to the Shoah. I heard many stories from survivors — my father was even one of them. Our house was his refuge and my family lived in distress; my father never went out alone. We had this idea of extreme and constant danger.
CBe: I read you were all sleeping together isolated from the world…
CBo: Yes. The Jewish side hasn’t influenced me though, or at least not directly, but the ideas of Evil and Chance did. Survivors always posed this question: “Why did I survive? And how?” They were almost ashamed to be survivors. My focus on chance comes from there and also from having seen so many friends die.
CBe: This makes me think of a seminal work of yours entitled The Missing House (1990) on Grosshamburger Strasse in Berlin, which is based on the idea of chance: why remove only the residents of buildings a and c and not building b? For that project you paid tribute to the residents of building b through memorial plaques with the residents’ names written on them.
CBo: This came from the fact that I lived in a world of survivors where there was this idea of danger and constant betrayal.
CBe: In many interviews you claim to be self-taught. Was this a choice?
CBo: I refused to go to school. I ultimately stopped when I was 13. I was lucky because my parents understood that I couldn’t do it. They tried but after an hour they found me outside crying. One day I made some small drawings and balls using plasticine, and my brothers said I was finally doing something right. So I told my parents that I wanted to be a painter and I began to paint.
CBe: Where are those paintings now?
CBo: Luckily enough, almost all of them were destroyed by my brother. When he wanted to move into the room where we kept the paintings he asked me what to do with them and I told him to just throw them away.
CBe: Did anyone at that moment see what you were doing? Did they call you an artist?
CBo: No, for me painting was just a way to survive. I was only painting two types of subjects: the massacre of the innocents and the Turkish entering the city of Van, which is another massacre. I was only painting scenes of massacres, which is also something that hasn’t changed much. They were naïve and violent, with blood everywhere.
CBo: I was deeply influenced by old masters and naïve painting like Art Brut. I was lucky my parents let me do it. My mother had a friend who at a certain point said to her: “Your son is an absolute idiot, his paintings are terrible. Let’s open a gallery together so he will learn something.” So they did it and I started to work in this horrible gallery, through which I met many artists. Very quickly I started to gain power in the gallery, doing different things like life-size expressionist dolls made out of fabric. Then I started to make films with the dolls and at some point I started to grow up. However I started working seriously in 1969 when I understood my childhood had ended, when I left my parents. I was scared and I started to work on the book Recherche et présentation de tout ce qui reste de mon enfance, 1944-1950 (1969), which was a way to preserve my childhood. What I have done in the following 40 years was already there.
CBe: In an interview with Catherine Grenier you talked about a writing of yours dating back to 1969 in which you speak about death, saying it is an awful thing and we need to preserve everything. That text already contained all your work, even what you are doing today. Am I right?
CBo: My life is made of three periods, and that time, from 1969 until 1974, was fundamental. The second one was when my parents died in 1990-1992, and the third started a few years ago when I started to get old. There are three to four creative periods in one’s life during which one resolves to do more or less the same things.
CBe: How has your work changed?
CBo: For instance, my recent work is more monumental and I rarely use photography nowadays. Now I work in a way that is much more abstract and, strangely enough, I work more on myself compared to ten years ago. At that time I was working on the notion of collective death; now I work on the idea of my own death.
CBe: The ’70s were the time of Arte Povera, Minimalism and Conceptual art, though I think you were closer to the experience that Harald Szeemann was suggesting with his notion of “personal mythology.”
CBo: I came into art after 1968 when there was a sort of a rejection of art galleries; we were trying to stay out of the institutions, working in venues like warehouses, churches or on the street. Therefore Harald Szeemann couldn’t but be my master. I had the fortune to meet him quite early in 1970. In 1972 I participated in Szeemann’s Documenta and I realized many things. It was extremely important, but even more so was the exhibition “Grand Father: A Pioneer Like Us” (1974) that he did in an apartment in Bern, in which he exhibited the tools of his grandfather, who was a hairdresser. This is akin to what I do and it had a huge impact on me. I have been lucky to always meet extraordinary people ready to help me. Now it is more difficult. Back then the art world was much smaller. In Paris, for instance, you could go to the galleries of Ileana Sonnabend or Yvon Lambert, to the openings of exhibitions by artists like Bruce Nauman or Robert Ryman, and find five people who had showed up and they would talk like crazy; it was like a sect.
CBe: What was your relationship to gallerists like? What about Sonnabend?
CBo: I was very lucky in that sense too. Ileana Sonnabend was an exceptional person, sometimes aggressive, sometimes terrible, but exceptional. I had total freedom. I wasn’t selling, but this didn’t compromise the possibility of having one show after the other with little time in between. I exhibited five times in Paris and four in New York. I sold only one piece during my show at The Art Institute in New York in 1973 and then nothing else. I have been teaching my whole life so I’ve never had problems with money. It was 1986 when I started to make a lot of money.
CBe: But you became famous with Documenta in 1972.
CBo: Yes, but no sales. I started to sell in 1986 in a strange way because Sonnabend closed and I was stuck. Then, these two American girls, Lynn Gumpert and Mary Jane Jacob — at that time working respectively at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago and MOCA in Los Angeles — came to my studio. They started talking to each other in English, and after 15 minutes asked me if I wanted to exhibit in the US. They changed my life. In 1988 they curated my retrospective “Lessons of Darkness” at the MCA, which traveled to the New Museum in New York and MOCA. After that moment I started to sell a lot in the US. Then Marian Goodman took me, thanks to Martin Disler. It has always been through friends: Sonnabend took me thanks to Sarkis and Marian thanks to Disler.
CBe: With the work for the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania you face and make public the issue of your death. Could you elaborate?
CBo: It is very simple. I sold a work of mine [The Life of C.B., 2010] to the collector David Walsh, who has opened this museum. The work consists of having my studio video-recorded day and night, whether I am there or not, and everything is broadcasted live in Tasmania in a sort of a cave. Walsh is keeping all the DVDs and soon, if I don’t die, there will be many. When I’m dead he will be able to do whatever he wants and my life will belong to him. This is amusing for me because this man is a professional gambler, he made a fortune with gambling; he can calculate faster than a computer. He has a unique kind of intelligence. Now he’s been banished by all the casinos because he assured me he always made money. The payment for my work is a monthly life allowance. Until I die.
CBe: Who profits?
CBo: In eight years he has to give me the amount of money he owes me. If I die before, he wins, if I die after, he looses. He said he has never lost in his life, and he said, “I’m sure you will not live more than eight years and I hope you will die in your studio so I will watch your death live.” I want to show I’m stronger than him, although it is possible, given my age, that I will die before. It is like playing with the devil, and it is not a coincidence that in Tasmania there is the Tasmanian Devil. He also wanted to buy my ashes but I refused. I did not want to end up there — such a sad place, rainy and far away. He wanted to have my DNA. I will give him a tooth.
CBe: I found the third iteration of Personnes (2010) [Hangar Bicocca, Milan; Grand Palais, Paris; Park Avenue Armory, New York] more dry and minimal, with a very different use of light. Would you like to comment on this?
CBo: I’ve always used light to blind rather than illuminate. Here light burns the eyes, it makes the perception of the space impossible, lowering the ceiling. In this regard, I’ve always been influenced by mosques. In Paris I used clothing as a kind of pavement, much like in a mosque where you find rugs on the floor and very dim light. The dome is high, but the ceiling seems to be lowered by the light and this was very inspiring for me. The function here is evident: a march towards destiny, towards the crane, towards death. At the same time Personnes is full of life. What is funny is that the heartbeat that you can hear throughout the corridor is perceived by some visitors as the noise of a train, by some others as that of the sea. It is a freeing rhythm.
CBe: We will see you soon in Venice. What can you tell us about your project for the Biennale?
CBo: The work is totally new, formally speaking. The title is Chance, and the work relates to much of my previous projects on the theme — to the installation at the Hangar Bicocca for instance — but this one is much more joyful and playful: I play with the sun, with daylight. In Venice you cannot close yourself in the darkness; everything is lighter here; there are gardens where people walk. It is a different atmosphere. In one of the pavilion’s rooms there will be a roller conveyor — like those once used to produce magazines — where 500 photos of Polish newborns are placed as if undergoing the printing process. It moves very quickly all around the room.
CBe: Where do the photos come from?
CBo: They come from a Polish newspaper that every week publishes newborns’ photos. In my installation, a computer randomly stops the belt and picks a photo, which is then projected for ten seconds onto a screen. Then the belt starts again running fast till it is stopped again, and another photo is chosen “by chance” and projected. It is like the wheel of fortune. It is chance. Every now and then a baby is chosen for no good or bad reasons. It is always the same story, like the fact that I am what I am and you are what you are simply because our mothers and fathers made love in those specific moments. We would be different if they had done it a few seconds later. Chance is the decisive factor in all our lives.
CBe: Does the installation expand outside the pavilion?
CBo: Just outside the pavilion there will be chairs that speak any time somebody sits down: “Is this the last time?” “Is this the last time I eat, the last time I come to Venice?” Also, inside the pavilion there is an artwork at stake. I took photos of babies’ and elders’ faces and cut them in three parts to include mouth, nose and eyes. Whoever can recompose a face wins the artwork. There will be a big screen in the room showing people’s attempts, but people will be able to play on the Internet from everywhere in the world. In this sense the installation actually expands much further the biennial’s physical space.
CBe: It is ultimately about your idea that we are each made of many pieces…
CBo: Yes, many pieces of our ancestors. This is actually the more trifling part of the installation, like slot machines at casinos, where you try to get the three apples in a row. It is still a philosophical variation on my interest in the theme of chance, but it is more lighthearted and playful. I had to use the computer and work a lot with technicians, and I certainly felt the biennial’s context as less dramatic than the Hangar Bicocca. I asked myself the same question, though in a happier mood — not really happy, but happier.
(Translated from Italian by Ben White)
Chiara Bertola is artistic director of Hangar Bicocca in Milan.
Christian Boltanski was born in 1944 in Paris. He lives and works in Malakoff, France.