June 3rd, 2010
One Man’s Land: Boltanski at the Armory
My first real experience with the Opera came in 1998 at BAM. My girlfriend at the time, who was (and probably still is) way more informed on classical music than me, invited me to “this thing at BAM, with Christian Boltanski.” The “thing” turned out to be Schubert’s Die Winterreise and the set had been designed by Boltanski. He used a combination of elements familiar to him: light bulbs and overcoats. The coats were hovering and dangling above the stage. They kept being raised up and down by mechanical means along with the light bulbs. They would go past each other as they traded places almost like a commute between heaven and earth. It was very low tech in appearance, but its impact was quite surreal. At the peak of the performance one of the coats free-falls from the ceiling and slams on the stage floor. It made most of us gasp.
Watching this had a great impact on me as an artist, a citizen and a human being. Before then, classical music was something I respected but didn’t care much for because it did not seem relevant to my experience as a person. But by “seeing” it through the lens of installation art, I learned to listen to it, and I was able to “hear” many of the elements that make it an incredibly expressive art form.
Now, twelve years later, I walked into another one of Mr. Boltanski’s pieces combining classical music and overcoats. At this point in my life I am not a formal student, like I was then, and I am walking into it after twelve years of catching up with classical music and feeling more confident about what I like, and don’t like. By now I have seen more installations that I can remember, and have attended to all kinds of music venues. Once again Boltanski has managed to move me, make me pause, and reflect.
The installation is larger in scope than the one at BAM, but no less personal. This time you walk into what can be described as a concentration camp where the memories of its victims have been stored away in a large wall made of rusting tin boxes, and their presence has been laid about the entire complex floor in the form of coats. All of them, carefully separated in different blocks. The whole “facility” is laid out in a strict symmetrical pattern—all fascist regimes lean towards symmetry—while a giant mechanical arm picks clothes from a center pile and drops them; over and over again. All the while you are listening to heartbeats through a series of speakers posted at every corner of every block of clothes. The effect is that of walking into two things at the same time. You walk into the raw physical complex composed of all the hardware, the commotion, and the monotony of a concentration camp, and you also walk into the heart and spirit of an individual, perhaps an individual inhabiting the complex itself. It is as if he wants you to get a feel for the experience that someone in that situation might go through. Of course this is not a literal, Mel Gibson-like, martyrized version of the experience, but a more subliminal one. Every 15 minutes or so an ensemble of musicians positioned throughout the building start playing a composition specially commissioned for this piece (composed by Franck Krawczyk and performed by the Argento Chamber Ensmble). The music sounds distinctly German; and not too unlike Wagner. To me this adds a further dimension to the work–as everybody knows Mr. Boltanski makes a lot of work that draws on his Jewish heritage and Wagner was an unrepentant anti-Semite.
In terms of artistic accomplishment and thoroughness, he conceived No Man’s Land (Personnes in the original French) in a very sensitive and encompassing way. There is a room where heartbeats are being collected in the form of digital recordings to be stored in the island of Setouchi in Japan. You can also sit in a room where a documentary on him is being played. Normally I would shudder at this type of thing because it is a museum device and I would prefer to look at the whole building as the installation, but in this case I don’t mind. The documentary really does help you build upon what is going on in the building and helps him take over the whole structure.
The experience itself is not very visceral, and I am not sure this is what he wants out of it. The piece, after all, is about life and hope. And I guess this is Mr. Boltanski’s winning card. No matter what the subject might be, his art is always hopeful and forward looking. It memorializes, but it doesn’t mourn.