Episode 2: Christian Boltanski's "Lumieres (blue square - Sylvie)" (2000)
The French artist Christian Boltanski said, “The less information you have, the more open the work, the more you can think about it.”
This quote doesn’t exactly invite visitors to this piece. Plenty of museum patrons are turned off by the inaccessibility, and especially the perceived deliberate inaccessibility, of a work of contemporary art. Art from the early side of Modernism – the Impressionists, the Picassos – are often given the benefit of the doubt—even if it’s hard to access, it still must be significant somehow – art history told us so. And more than that, they are seen as a clear reflection of the context in which they were created. A lady in dressed in chic 1870s Parisian fashions is clearly of her time. This is history, and this curator is telling me this 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. 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, mixed. It might seem like, as you look around the room, that none of these artist have ever 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 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. For starters, who is she? That’s the question we ask of any portrait (except the Mona Lisa, the world’s most famous portrait that’s really about the artist). 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 30s or 40s, like she never lived her life in color. And 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.
Because art historians love putting things in boxes, Boltanski has been declared one of the poster children for Post-Holocaust representation art, although 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 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 attention to it being something that we simply do. And like any good artist after Van Gogh and the German Expressionists, he 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 empty skeletal eye sockets – which deliberately obfuscates 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 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, actually: if you stand up close, you can 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 makes us living, breathing people. Boltanski calls this process “a series of little deaths” each time we forget a detail of a person once they die. And we draw broad strokes instead, of an icon, as the MFA has done in its wall text: “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 is work to that narrow an interpretation. We all will die, and it’s going to take a lot of effort for our loved ones to remember us accurately. And he wants us simply to think about that.