Proof of Life

Christian Boltanski at Museo d'Arte Moderna of Bologna, Italy

5 SEPTEMBER 2017,
Animitas (blanc) © C. Boltanski
Animitas (blanc) © C. Boltanski

I open with a major digression. Recently I won several random boxes of books, at a very modest cost, from a local auction house, ending up with a rather disappointing cache of 1940’s tomes exploring European philosophy. My reason for bidding was a single volume in Italian and, as if in justification for this respectable form of gambling, I romanticized my heroism as the book’s ‘rescuer’ from the lumpen anonymity of its undistinguished, faded companions. The inefficiency of acquiring 200 unwanted hardback books for the sake of gaining that single volume later struck me as pointless, and on taking delivery, slightly nauseating. In the cold light of day, the weighty absurdity of our disposable society, combined with the vanity of my hollow victory, settled on me as though I were carrying of a sack of ashes soaked in bitter aloes.

Ian Fleming, in his early James Bond title, Casino Royale [1], gives an extraordinary account of the corrosive effects of gambling on the soul, and the poignancy of his description/experience was not wasted on me as I weighed my disproportionate losses in the form of redundant texts destined for thrift shops or for imminent recycling. Taking apart one of the boxes, I noticed a flash of faded blue under the bottom flap of the carton.

On further investigation I found two blue limp reisepass from Nazi-era Germany. These floppy travel permits, were made, rather improbably, from ageing, thin, but remarkably serviceable oilcloth. Each permit displayed a frightening swastika stamp, endorsing the names and right to travel to work for two Jewish labourers, a man and a woman. These strange, lost objects carried a shocking authenticity, arcing back to what were, in all probability, two stories of unimaginable human suffering. At times, our bloody European history and the capacity of its paraphernalia to verify humanity’s ability to conjure monstrous evil, never seem far below the surface.

For 40 years or more Christian Boltanski has managed to invoke our empathy and grief for the lost and the missing, whilst topically indicting a seemingly endless procession of possible or specified culpable perpetrators. The works that comprise Anime. Di Luogo in Luogo (Souls. From Place to Place) remind us of the longevity and unwavering brilliance of Boltanski, who for me, remains unsurpassed in his ability to shine a light on the susceptibility of the human spirit.

The show, visible until 12 November 2017, is brilliantly selected and curated, offering an overview of the artist’s output over time, plus a new installation. To describe the individual rooms and the works here in the written word is boring and misses the point. The potency of this show is to do with what is not there, rather than what is.

Anime. Di Luogo in Luogo presents the greatest hits, and they still hit very hard. The installations that make up the overall retrospective are as fresh and relevant today as they ever have been. Bologna’s own Danilo Eccher, who has worked with Gilbert and George, Francesco Clemente and Matt Collishaw amongst others, has orchestrated this show beautifully, whilst the City of Bologna itself, with the dark echoes of history and art history in the guise of Morandi and De Chirico make for a charismatic subliminal backdrop.

Boltanski’s magic springs from his unique ability to share his deep understanding of the human condition and of ‘stuff’ that has the potential to invoke empathy for victims, in much the same way that epitaphs to unknown soldiers might. Unlike Boltanski’s site specific memorials, here we are not presented with direct information about the victims of persecution or the documentary evidence of their specific suffering. What we do have is the rather eerie feeling our own transience as we inspect Boltanski’s conveyor of processed and processing souls, frozen uncannily and installed humanely through photographs, archives, light and darkness, electricity and physical presence.

Boltanski is one of the finest artists and most serious minds of a generation, see this survey and then see his installation ‘Ustica’ [2], also in Bologna, and I defy you to be unmoved. Words fail me in the face of this work. Probably one of the best shows I will ever see and one that reinstated this viewer’s belief that the arts still possess the potency to get us to understand our existential, atomic quandary, this without the need to resort to building a Large Hadron Collider – or the (inevitable) successor(s) to prove our point.

Notes:
[1] Casino Royal was the first James Bond novel, written by Ian Fleming and published by Jonathan Cape in 1953
[2] A proposito di Ustica (About Ustica): On Friday 27 June 1980, an Italian internal flight from Bologna-Palermo, crashed into the sea, resulting in the loss of 81 passengers. Boltanski was asked by the city of Bologna to create a permanent installation to act as a memorial and reminder of one of the most narrated tragedies to have occurred in Italy. The resulting permanent installation presents the remains of the DC9 aircraft surrounded by large crates shrouded in black cloth that contain some personal belongings of the victims.