Episode 2: Christian Boltanski's "Lumieres (blue square - Sylvie)" (2000)
TAMAR: How would you just describe what you’re looking at?
VOICE 1: Flushes of light in the dark.
VOICE 1: It’s like a fence that’s blocking something, and there’s a human being behind this fence. So there’s some sort of barrier… metal, plastic maybe
VOICE 2: Wires.
VOICE 1: Glass?
VOICE 2: Black wires? Illuminating lights. Seven across, seven down.
VOICE 1: The lights are not like the usual lights that we see, I mean lighting our houses. They are like blue-ish on the outside. So it’s light but it’s not clear light.
VOICE 2: A young girl, or a young child in a dark room.
VOICE 1: It remind me of the Holocaust.
VOICE 2: Yeah.
VOICE 1: Like a child from the Holocaust when I see it when I saw it first.
VOICE 3: The somberness in her look. The darkened eyes, her facial expression. And we all have seen so many children of the Holocaust, she just jumps out as yet another figure from what we’ve seen, we’ve seen so many, right?
VOICE 4: Mhm.
VOICE 3: I also see it that we are in the light. Looking in. And from our perspective of being in the light, our eyes are focusing on this figure, this child, but… um, she’s dimly lit. So we don’t really know what’s going on on the inside. And certainly we don’t want to be in there, we’d rather be out here in the light.
VOICE 1: And I think there is something symbolic in that picture for that kid. Maybe to be found, or to get somewhere or to… you know, from darkness to light to see his family or I don’t know, maybe something like that.
VOICE 1: So it’s basically bringing her to life the fact that we look at this and, and talk about her, so it’s like making her alive again.
The French artist Christian Boltanski said, “The less information you have, the more open the work, the more you can think about it.”
Now, this quote doesn’t exactly invite visitors to this piece. Plenty of museum goers are turned off by the inaccessibility, and especially the perceived deliberate inaccessibility, of any work of contemporary art. Visitors tend to give art from the early side of Modernism – the Impressionists, the Picassos – a pass, and the benefit of the doubt. That, even if it’s hard to access, it still must be significant somehow, because art history told us so. And more than that, these objects are seen as a clear reflection of the context in which they were created. A lady dressed in chic 1870s Parisian fashions is clearly of her time. This is history, and this curator is telling me it matters, so it’s on me, as a visitor, to pay attention and learn something.
But all bets are off when you walk into a contemporary gallery. It’s like, no one is minding the store. Artists have been left on their own to problem solve for decades, and the results are, shall we say, inconsistent. It might seem like, as you look around the room, that none of these artist have ever even talked to each other, and they certainly don’t seem to want to talk to you. Their work is so radically different from one another, as opposed to, say, the paintings in the Impressionist gallery. But these artists are reacting and responding to their contexts too. And you can’t tell the story of the second half of the twentieth century without acknowledging the trauma of the first half.
But let’s return to this quote in the spirit in which Boltanski means it: “the less information you have, the more open the work, the more you can think about it.”
The less information you have. Well, for starters, who is she? That’s the question we ask of any portrait. All we see is a grainy photograph of a girl who looks historical, like she wouldn’t have been out of place in Europe in the 1930s or 40s, like she never lived her life in color. We know what we associate with grainy black and white photos from Europe from the 30s and 40s, and when we add into the mix that Boltanski was born in France, in 1944, and in hiding from the Nazis, bingo! We know exactly who she is – and where she must have ended up.
Art historians are tasked with creating a canon, and have to put things in boxes, and therefore, Boltanski has been declared one of the poster children for Post-Holocaust representation art, but this wasn’t by his own design. Yes, he was born in Europe during WWII, and yes his family experienced the Holocaust first-hand, and some of his work, if you Google it, directly references the Holocaust. But very little of it. What he’s continually interested in, though, is memory, and death. As you can imagine, two pillars of post-Holocaust art, but it’s broader than that. He’s interested in how memory objectively works, and, more importantly, how it fails us.
Because the truth is, this is a photo that he found at a flea market. We have no idea who she is – he has no idea who she is – and the entire narrative that we created around her: her life as a 1930s French schoolgirl cut short by Auschwitz, is completely projected onto her by us.
In this way, Bolstanski’s art demands our participation. He wants us to create this narrative – he’s not judging us for doing it, I want to be clear about that, he’s just calling our attention to it being something that we simply do. And like any empathy-rousing artist after Van Gogh and the German Expressionists, Boltanski reinforces our participation through his technique: this single image, pulled from obscurity, is enlarged and rephotographed again and again and again until the image itself is degraded like a mix tape you’ve taped over one too many times.
All we’re left with is the blurred image of her face – if you want to get metaphorical and a little on the nose, you can focus on the almost skeletal, empty eye sockets – which deliberately obfuscate any sense of identity. Anything about her that was specifically her – a freckle, a loose tooth – all of it is wiped away.
Boltanski is taking an established genre – portraiture – and subverting it completely. This is a portrait of someone whom the artist and the audience know nothing about, who is presented in a way that eliminates any telling details, and the experiencing of this portrait tells the viewer more about himself than about the sitter. The bulbs are facing us, interrogating us. We’re the ones in the hot seat – literally: if you stand up close, you can actually feel the heat. And the more time you spend looking, the more the bulbs are overexposing and blinding you from the central image. And these industrial materials, which Boltanski uses repeatedly in his work, do give you a sense of machinery, of an endless gridded mechanical reproducibility in a post WWII world, into which Sylvie is one of an infinity.
So what are we learning about ourselves? By telling ourselves the story of who she is – this tragic girl who never had a chance – we are participating in her anonymity. Because we are satisfied to tell a familiar story and leave it at that. And in doing so, we wipe away all of the tiny details that actually make us who we are, what make us living, breathing people. Boltanski called this process “a series of little deaths” every time we forget the details of a person once they die. And we draw broad strokes instead, of an icon, as the MFA has done in its wall text: she is “an icon of humanity.” She is, and that’s exactly the problem. Again, you can understand why so many scholars of post-Holocaust art are rightly quick to prop up Boltanski as putting his finger on exactly what was lost. And you can also understand why Boltanski himself wouldn’t have wanted to limit his work to that narrow an interpretation. We will all die, and it’s going to take a lot of effort for our loved ones to remember us accurately. And he simply wants us to think about that.
Next time on The Lonely Palette.
VOICE 1: This is a portrait of an older gentleman.
VOICE 2: A man pointing at papers, maybe in the 1700s?
VOICE 3: A very prominent, forceful person and was used to getting his way.
VOICE 4: The finger pointing is a very aggressive stance.
VOICE 5: Look how big his head is to his body. And he has almost no shoulders!
HOST: If you were kind of confronting him, in a dark alley.
VOICE 6: Or even confronting him at this table, I’d rather leave. [laughs]