Artist Focus – Christian Boltanski

Christian Boltanski – Artist Focus by Trefethen Studios from John Trefethen on Vimeo.


There are several artists whose works falls within the genre of activism and art. In this session, we will view the work of Christian Boltanski. You are encouraged to study his work in greater detail. A good place to start is by exploring the book titled, “Christian Boltanski, by Phaidon Press.

Christian Boltanski is an artist known for his installation work. Among these installations are the notions of mass genocide that took place during the Holocaust. His work forces viewers to consider their place among the masses as they walk through towering heights of stacked boxes; these stacked boxes represent the remains of Holocaust victims.

Boltanski’s approach is one of sheer volume; his viewer’s senses are overwhelmed by the sights and smells of his installations. The piles of clothing that are strewn about in a massive display in a way that suggests they were discarded. In Lost Workers: The Work People of Halifax 1877-1982, Boltanski transforms the space of the Dean Clough Carpet Mill, once host to the largest carpet mill in the world, by covering the floor with second-hand clothing.

Boltanski reclaims historically insignificant places by repurposing the space for his exhibitions, as shown in his work at the old carpet mill. Every carpet worker was fired when the factory shut down. In his work, Boltanski created a room for all of the workers and in it was a box for each of them. In this box, the workers could place some kind of souvenir from his past while at the factory. By doing this, Boltanski, in a way, allows the workers a sense of place, giving them back what was theirs for so many years: the factory. The collection of souvenirs serves as the historical document of a past life. The interaction of the workers as they visit the space and share their history recalls a time and place that still belongs to them. These past, shared moments in time serves as the tie that binds these people together.

There is a feeling of abandonment in much of the work Boltanski creates. Each installation brings a past tragedy to life, or recalls a forgotten event because, as Boltanski says: “…often when someone dies, that memory disappears. These memories are very fragile; I wanted to save them.”

His work relates to people in a way that encourages broader social change. For Boltanski states that, “art is always a witness, sometime a witness to events before they actually occur. So if we want to understand society we should look at society’s artists.”

Christian Boltanski studies our past in order to shed light on our future. His work unifies human tragedy by making us all witness to the annihilation of both grand and minute cultures. His work uses titles that merely suggest, but leave open many possible outcomes. He claims that he tries to make what he refers to as “open titles” that are suggestive and emotive. The viewer then plays a significant role in completing his work, using their own varied backgrounds. As Boltanski himself says, “a good work of art can never be read in one way.”

Christian Boltanski’s work straddles the divide between human-document and historical fact. He carefully places his viewers at the helm of the ship, navigating their way through a sea of human artifacts and emotional remains, where they are given enough information to set in motion their course of change.

~ John Trefethen

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