Christian Boltanski and La Maison Rouge have created another breathtaking installation as part of the current Festival d'Automne in Paris. Les Archives du Coeur continues all of Boltanski's familiar preoccupations with archiving, memory, history and how photography is and is not adequate to the communication of the relations between them. As always, the artistic world of Christian Boltanski is imagined in a conversation between light and dark, the moving and still image, sound and silence, all of which come together to discourse on the memory of life as it flows towards death. On pulling back the heavy curtain to the entrance of the main exhibition space of La Maison Rouge, we are immediately struck by the rhythms and sounds of the heart beat, Boltanski's heart beat, and the bare hanging light bulb, flashing on and off to the beat of this heart. The sound of Le Coeur coming from an oversized speaker in the middle of the blackened space is mesmerizing but does not overwhelm. We are drawn towards the sound, and feel it course through our bodies, but we are never deafened by it. On the walls, perspex black squares of all different sizes proliferate. We approach them to confirm there is nothing represented thereon, that they are just black squares. The fourth component of the installation sees black and white transparencies of Boltanski's portrait, serially projected through superimposition in a video format, as he ages, from childhood to late middle age. The portraits in Entre Temps (Between Times) (2003) are not all identifiably of Boltanski, but there is no doubt they are by Boltanski. The faces are so familiar to Boltanski's work: they verge on non-description with their blackened eye sockets, cheeks made gaunt by shadows, and skin obscured by light. They amount to portraits of the experience of trauma, perhaps even death.
This is an exhibition in which vision plays a relatively minor role in the experiential process of being a visitor. Rather, memory and experience are given over to the passing of time, which, in turn, is realized through hearing, through the sensation of the pulse of Boltanski's heart in our own bodies as we stand in the middle of the room. And the multitude of plastic black squares on the walls are without images, at best, capturing the reflection of the scrim on which the series of photographic transparencies are projected. Depending on where we stand in the room, we may see the entirety of a face, or simply, the reflection of its light on another. Sometimes we see the light bulb flashing on and off in the reflection of the black squares. And if we close our eyes in the middle of the room, we see and feel the effect of the light bulb on our closed eyes as if it were an after image, the trace of an event, an image that no longer exists. Thus, when we do use our sense of sight, it is only to watch the image shift, and ultimately, disappear.
In the place of the eye Boltanski implicates the body : the effects of time passing are registered on the body - on his body, on our bodies, and on the volume of the exhibition space. Thus, his body and our bodies are brought together in what must be the ultimate communion between artist and viewer for the creation of art. But to what ends? In this relationship with Boltanski, like the works that connect us to him, we become fellow journeymen and women on the path through life towards death. As we move physically and emotionally between the icons of the beating heart and the blank, blackened world of death on the walls and in the portrait series, we realize memories are being created on our passage through life and art. And we also embrace our own death on the horizon (not just Boltanski's as it is pictured in the portraits) if we take up the invitation to have our heartbeat recorded, with a view to it being archived. Boltanski is collecting heart beats for an archive he will found on the island of Ejima in the Sea of Japan. And so our heartbeats become archived together with his in the name of art, in Christian Boltanski, "Les Archives du Coeur".
And because galleries and artists in the capitalist world need to stay alive, we can buy a copy of our heartbeat on CD. When I asked the lady who recorded my heart if it was worth buying, she replied "but of course, it's your heartbeat, you can't live without it." She's right, I thought, until I got home to find I had bought someone else's heart beat: I felt like Faust, stealing life to live one that didn't belong to me.
(Image: Christian Boltanski, Les Archives du Coeur, 2008, installation at La Maison Rouge, Paris. Courtesy of La Maison Rouge. @Christian Boltanski)