Christian Boltanski's "Personnes"

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Christian Boltanski's "Personnes" photo: Bob Bishop
"Monumenta 2010" at the Grand Palais features a gigantic installation by Christian Boltanski with the enigmatic title "Personne."  Each year, a leading international contemporary artist is invited by the Ministry of Culture  to create an exceptional new work for the 13,500 m² Nave of Paris' Grand Palais.  Previous "Monumenta" artists include Anselm Kiefer (2007) and Richard Serra (2008). Anish Kapoor is scheduled for next year and Daniel Buren in 2012.

Christian Boltanski, one of France's most important contemporary artists, created especially for the voluminous Grand Palais space a haunting monumental installation using materials including hundreds of tin boxes, 200,000 used clothing garments and the sound of several hundred people's beating hearts. The name "Personne" in French has a double meaning. Depending on how it is used it either means somebody or nobody. In an interview with Richard Leydier in Art Press Boltanski said  "This project is about the transition between "being" and "no longer being," between somebody and nobody." Boltanksi will create a similar installation titled "No Man's Land" for the Park Avenue Armory in New York in the Spring (May 12 through June 14, 2010).

Entering the Grand Palais one is confronted with a giant wall of rusting "biscuit" tin boxes with numbers in no apparent order stuck on them. Passing the wall one sees hundreds of rectangles with clothes laid out in them on the floor. Each illuminated by a florescent light suspended by wires from metal posts. On the metal posts suspending the lights are speakers; each emitting the sound of a beating heart. In the distance is a giant pyramid of clothes with a "fun-fair" like claw grabbing some clothes from the top of the pile; raising then dropping them. Commenting on the symbolism Boltanski said, "for some years now I have been interested in the hand of God... in chance."

With Boltanski's work one always feels the weight of the Holocaust. His father, a Jewish doctor, hid under the floor of the family house during the Nazi occupation. The "Personnes" installation with its roaring sound of hearts feels like a cold impersonal factory where there is "absence of presence" at every turn from the tin boxes (for cremation ashes?) to the clothes (garments of holocaust victims?) to the sound of beating hearts (to whom did they belong?).  "Personnes' visitors are invited to record their own hearts while at the Grand Palais and be part of Boltanski's "Heart Archive" of 15,000 heartbeats located on the Teshima island in Japan at the Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation.

The installation is truly monumental in size, ambition and its emotional impact as it considers human destiny and the march of time into oblivion "An artist shows the truth," says Boltanksi, " he doesn't speak the truth. He makes us feel it."

Monument 2010, Christian Boltanski, "Personnes" Grand Palais, Paris, To Feb. 21, 2010.

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