The vast scope of this exhibition presents a deeply visual and emotional experience, beginning in darkness and culminating in light and redemption. Leading artist Christian Boltanski returns to the Israel Museum for the third time to display works created over the last 40 years. Boltanski was born in Paris in 1944 to a Jewish father and Catholic mother. He grew up surrounded by those who survived the war and by memories of those who died; these childhood experiences are at the core of his work, which asks “big questions”: Is it possible to truly remember? How do we commemorate the dead ?
What will remain after we are gone ? Lifetime leads visitors from early artworks to recent pieces created especially for this exhibition. One such project, Animitas (small souls), is a video work for which Boltanski placed 300 Japanese wind chimes on the banks of the Dead Sea, arranged in accordance to the star alignment on the date of the artist’s birth. The bells ’ ringing symbolizes the souls of the dead, as indicated by the work’s name; as a whole the installation functions as a contemporary memorial site.
Using modest materials – lamps, photographs, and old tin boxes – deployed with straightforward simplicity, Boltanski has raised an altar or memorial to those who are no longer. The artist rephotographed the individual images of four students in a 1931 class photo from a Jewish school in Vienna named after Rabbi Hirsch Perez Chajes, enlarging each one and clipping a lamp above it. Halos of light hover over the foreheads like bullet wounds. Many members of this high school class no doubt perished in the Holocaust, and the feeling of loss or sadness the images evoke cannot be separated from horror at the way their story ends.
In his lean visual vocabulary, Boltanski seeks to communicate with his audience, to give form to fundamental questions about life, death, and memory. The photographs are of specific people, but the process of enlarging and blurring their faces obscures identity. Instead of preserving individual likenesses, and thereby individual lives, even after death, the photographs signify absence and testify that we cannot hold on to the dead.
On a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, three hundred Japanese bells have been arranged according to the configuration of the stars on the night Boltanski was born. When the wind blows, the bells on their fine metal reeds produce a delicate chime, while the clear plaques attached to each one shimmer in the light. Animitas was first created in 2014 in Chile’s Acatama Desert and has since been replayed in a number of settings, among them a snowy Canadian landscape and a forest in Japan. On the occasion of the present exhibition, the artist recreated the work in Israel, at a site known as Mitzpeh ha-Efes – “the Zero Lookout” – by the Dead Sea.
The result is something mythic that brings together traditions and beliefs of different kinds. Mitzpeh ha-Efes, marking sea level, separates the living kingdom of sky and mountains from an underworld, a kingdom of the dead – as the sea’s name indicates – at the lowest point on earth. In Japanese tradition, a slip of paper with a wish is attached to such bells, and each time the bell rings, the wish is carried on the wind to the powers that be. The work’s Spanish name means “small souls” and refers to the little shrines that are erected in memory of loved ones. Finally, the resonance between the French words for sea – mer – and mother – mère – seems particularly significant when we consider the womb-like shape of the Dead Sea and its primal setting.
Dozens of pairs of eyes – made-up, wrinkled, young, old – stare at us from translucent curtains. The gaze may be probing and direct, or it may be blank, and as we walk through these eyes we may engage with them or we may avert our own gaze. The images come from Greek passport photos, since Boltanski made the work while preparing an exhibition in Athens, but their origin is of no importance. In the most universal way, eyes and the gaze convey the essence of being human – the self. The gaze of the other forms our own sense of self as we walk through this labyrinth of looks.