Christian Boltanski has filled Paris’s Grand Palais with a 50-tonne mountain of clothes, and the sound of 15,000 heartbeats. Adrian Searle is mesmerised
First there is the noise, a clamour that fills the echoing vault of the Grand Palais like a great and distant crowd. It shifts as one wanders about Christian Boltanski’s Personnes, his new project for Monumenta, the annual Parisian equivalent to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall commission. The roaring, sonorous boom of white noise separates into deep, regular thuds, and above it the croak of frogs or the alarm calls of unseen jungle birds. There are disco squelches and native drums.
These sounds are all human heartbeats. Visitors can make their own contribution by having their heart rhythms recorded by white-coated technicians in booths off the main space. Boltanski, one of France’s leading artists, is compiling an archive of heartbeats that he intends to be housed, eventually, on a remote and inaccessible Japanese island. He has already collected over 15,000 individual recordings. One day, these beating hearts will all belong to the dead. If Boltanski’s art endures, one might also imagine that the visitors who make it to the island in the future have yet to be born.
Boltanski’s art is filled with tragedy, humour and a sense of the absurd. It’s a hoot. It is also exceptionally cold. Monumenta usually takes place in late spring, but Boltanski delayed the opening to take advantage of lightless days and winter chill. Personnes is filled with intimations of the dead. To begin with, one is confronted by a long, high wall of stacked rusted boxes, each of them numbered, the contents of which are unknown. Beyond lies a field of old clothes, lain out in a grid running the length of the building, like municipal flower beds or a field of remembrance. There are old coats and anoraks, once-fashionable things and shapeless things, bright cardigans and children’s sweaters, tatty jumpers and forlorn skirts – a rag-picker’s field or the last day of the spring sales.
Rusted vertical posts divide the grid, supporting striplights slung between wires, whose thin glare gives the space a dismal carnival air – or the feel of some stadium in which detainees have been rounded up and sent to their doom. It is hard not to think of deportations and genocides, a recurrent theme in Boltanski’s art.
A great mechanical grab suspended from a crane plucks at a mountain of more old clothes, repeatedly lifting quantities of wretched sweaters, dresses and coats towards the roof of the Belle Epoque building, only to drop them again in a flurry of flailing garments and clouds of dust, back on to the 50-tonne mound. The process is as pointless as it is interminable. Boltanski has said he thinks of the grab as the indifferent hand of God, or one of those fairground amusements where you try to grab a particular toy, and always fail.
Platitudes about death and absence are easy, however close to hand and present death always is. There are more people alive now than ever before. Ghosts have been crowded out and their voices drowned by the living, WG Sebald remarked somewhere. This thought also permeates Boltanski’s art, which has insistently returned to the subject not just of death but of the anonymity death confers. He deals in traces rather than ghosts, with shadows and lists, photographs of the dead and piles of old clothes. His art, ultimately, is a memorial to nothing, to everyone and no one.
Another of his current projects is to be filmed in his studio, 24 hours a day, from now until his own death. There is a live feed to a cave in Tasmania owned by a collector, who can watch Boltanski’s daily life as it unfolds, but will be unable to rewind and watch prior moments of this constant record until after Boltanski himself has died. He has also said that art is an attempt to prevent death and the flight of time. Boltanski was, by his own account, a boy who never wanted to grow up.
His father was a secular Jew who hid in a space under the floorboards in the family home during the last years of the Nazi occupation in Paris. Boltanski’s mother, a Christian, kept up the pretence that she had been left by her errant husband, who emerged from hiding to father the artist in 1944. This fact permeates Boltanski’s work, and he frequently refers to it in interviews; it explains his instinct for the absurd and the obsession with death.
It is hard to avoid comparison between Personnes, with its unsettling atmosphere and gravitas, and the previous Monumenta project, the great Promenade by Richard Serra in 2008, one of the best works to come out of the past decade. The intentions and manners of these two artists could not be more different, but both stress the importance and place of the spectator, and their relation to objects and spaces. Both are also preoccupied by repetition and difference, a sensitivity to the conditions of place and time. It is a relationship that is grounded in the body, as much as it is in ideas. One day all our bodies will be stilled, our clothes empty.