Arts Curriculum

Christian Boltanski: Documentation and Reiteration

"A good work of art can never be read in one way. My work is full of contradictions. An artwork is open—it is the spectators looking at the work who make the piece, using their own background. A lamp in my work might make you think of a police interrogation, but it’s also religious, like a candle. At the same time it alludes to a precious painting, with a single light shining on it. There are many way of looking at the work. It has to be ‘unfocused’ somehow so that everyone can recognize something of their own self when viewing it."
(Christian Boltanski, “Tamar Garb in conversation with Christian Boltanski,” in Christian Boltanski [London: Phaidon Press, 1997], p. 24.)

Christian Boltanski: Documentation and Reiteration

Christian Boltanski, Autel de Lycée Chases, 1986–87. Six photographs, six desk lamps, and twenty-two tin boxes, 170.2 x 214.6 x 24.1 cm. Rubell Family Collection, Miami © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

The power of photography to recall the past has inspired many contemporary artists to use photographs to revisit the experience of historical events. In so doing, artists reconsider the photograph itself as an object imbued with history. They became aware that using the medium of photography would lend the elements of specificity and truth to their work.

Since the late 1960s, Christian Boltanski (b. 1944, Paris) has worked with photographs collected from ordinary and often ephemeral sources, endowing the commonplace with significance. Rather than taking original photographs to use in his installations, he often finds and rephotographs everyday documents—passport photographs, school portraits, newspaper pictures, and family albums—to memorialize everyday people. Boltanski seeks to create an art that is indistinguishable from life and has said, “The fascinating moment for me is when the spectator hasn’t registered the art connection, and the longer I can delay this association the better” (“Christian Boltanski: Lessons of Darkness,” [accessed January 25, 2010]). By appropriating mementos of other people’s lives and placing them in an art context, Boltanski explores the power of photography to transcend individual identity and to function instead as a witness to collective rituals and shared cultural memories.

In Boltanski’s 1986–87 work Autel de Lycée Chases (which means “Altar to the Chases High School”) enlarged photographs of children are hung over a platform constructed from stacked tin biscuit boxes, which are rusted as if they have been ravaged by time. The black-and-white photographs look like artifacts from another era. An electric light illuminates each face while at the same time obscuring it. The arrangement gives no way to identify or connect the unnamed individuals.

The photos used in Autel de Lycée Chases were taken from a real-world source, the school photograph of the graduating class of 1931 from a Viennese high school for Jewish students. These students were coming of age in a world dominated by war and persecution, and it is likely that many perished over the next decade.

At once personal and universal in reference, Boltanski’s work serves as a monument to the dead, hinting at the Holocaust without naming it. Within this haunting environment, Boltanski intermingles emotion and history, sentimentality and profundity.

Christian Boltanski

Christian Boltanski, Autel de Lycée Chases, 1986–87. Six photographs, six desk lamps, and twenty-two tin boxes, 170.2 x 214.6 x 24.1 cm. Rubell Family Collection, Miami © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

  • What is your reaction to this work? What mood does it evoke for you?
  • This work is constructed from a few simple materials; six photographs, six desk lamps, and twenty-two tin boxes. What associations do you have with each of these items?
  • How has the artist suggested a mood by his use and manipulation of these materials?
  • Boltanski has said, “Part of my work has been about what I call ‘small memory.’ Large memory is recorded in books and small memory is all about little things: trivia, jokes. Part of my work then has been about trying to preserve ‘small memory,’ because often when someone dies, that memory disappears. Yet that ‘small memory’ is what makes people different from one another, unique. These memories are very fragile; I wanted to save them.” (“Tamar Garb in conversation with Christian Boltanski,” p. 19.) Do you think this work is successful in achieving Boltanski’s aim? Explain.
Christian Boltanski, Autel de Lycée Chases, 1986–87. Six photographs, six desk lamps, and twenty-two tin boxes, 170.2 x 214.6 x 24.1 cm. Rubell Family Collection, Miami © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

  • Christian Boltanski grew up in the aftermath of World War II knowing that, to avoid detection by the Nazis, his Jewish father hid under the floorboards of the family’s Paris apartment for a year and a half. Although Boltanski downplays family history, his artistic work is haunted by the wider ideas of faith, memory, and loss. Boltanski creates memorials for those who endured the horrors of the Holocaust, but his work also speaks to other holocausts, such as those in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. He often seeks to memorialize the anonymous and those who have disappeared.

    Discuss with your students different types of memorials and commemorations that help us to remember those who perished in acts of genocide. Some people prefer an individual symbolic act, like lighting a candle or observing a silence. Others may write a poem, plant a tree, interview a survivor, or organize an event or activity. The main objective is to commemorate victims, honor survivors, and commit to tackling prejudice, discrimination, and racism in the present day.

    Then ask students to research one or more instances of genocide and design a way to commemorate those who perished. Two excellent Web sites that provide resources for educators include Teaching Tolerance and the United States Holocaust Museum.
    Social Studies

  • A memorial can range from the offering of a single flower to erecting a large-scale permanent monument. It can honor an event, a person, group of people, or even a beloved pet. Think about something or someone that you would like to pay tribute to. Sketch the design and consider:
    —What material(s) will it be made from?
    —How large or small will it be?
    —Will it be permanent or last for only a short time?
    —Where is the best site for it?
    —What inscription would you add?

    When you are done, share your plan with your classmates and compare the various possibilities.
    Visual Arts

  • Boltanski states, “I never take photographs myself. I don’t feel like a photographer, more like a recycler” (Ibid., p. 25). The teacher should distribute a photocopy of an anonymous person culled from the Internet, newspapers, or magazines. Ask students to write a character profile that invents the details of this person’s life, including what Boltanski calls both “large” and “small” memories. The written profile should support the information in the photograph. When the writing assignment is complete, students should share the profiles they have created.
    English / Language Arts