Frank Stella once complained about what he saw as a kind of timidity in Italian painting before Leonardo, something ‘in the acceptance of commissioned configurations, in the attitude towards covering a given surface that held painting back … Artists before Leonardo accepted the given surface and made the best of it.’ Today, it seems to me, artists who make installations find themselves in a comparable position: confronting spaces of a certain size or shape which they have to fill. The task doesn’t square easily with what we imagine of the artist’s need for autonomy: his urge to realise the imaginative space that he has in mind rather than decorate the actual space with which he is presented.
One of the easiest ways round the problem for an installation artist is just to turn out the lights: make the room dark and it disappears, secreted in the shadows like a canvas behind the paint that covers it. Its boundaries vanish, leaving the artist free to evoke new, imaginary ones: something more like the tactile space of blind man’s bluff than a visual space whose measure we can take in at a glance. Christian Boltanski’s installations of the 1980s worked on this principle; indeed, his big exhibition that travelled the US in 1988-90 was called Lessons of Darkness. In his signature works of that time, arrays of old black and white photos, blown-up and blurry, hung in darkened spaces, each with a lamp right in front of it – blocking one’s view while also making the photo visible. These works were memorials of a sort, not to specific individuals (the subjects of the photographs were unnamed and unrecognisable), but to an abstract idea of individuality, or an unanchored feeling about it: the poignancy, perhaps the sentimentality, of the work lay in its attempt to show the sheer fact of the uniqueness of unknown people, an individuality without identity, something akin to Agamben’s ‘bare life’. Boltanski doesn’t use photographs any more, but there are less direct ways to evoke this ungraspable individuality. Old clothes have long been a favourite material and they are the basis of Personnes, his new installation in the nave of the Grand Palais in Paris (until 21 February), which is the third instalment (following Anselm Kiefer in 2007 and Richard Serra in 2008) of the Monumenta series organised by the Ministry of Culture – the Parisian answer to the Unilever series at Tate Modern.
In daylight under the glass ceiling of the Grand Palais there’s no chance of exploiting the mystique of darkness. Filling this vast nave – 13,500 square metres, more than four times the size of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall – is a formidable challenge. At the Tate, we’ve seen some artists respond by filling the space up (Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread) and others by emptying it out (Bruce Nauman, Doris Salcedo). Some artists deal with the vastness by concerning themselves less with the objects that might be placed there than with the people who move through it, setting out to concoct a feelgood experience for the crowd; Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project (a blazing artificial sun, plus a mirrored ceiling that had people lying on their backs to observe their reflections) and Carsten Höller’s Test Site (gigantic bendy slides to hurtle down) are the obvious instances. The high drama of mourning and melancholia is more elegant, however, and no one does it more elegantly, or dramatically, than Boltanski.
But in trying, like a quattrocento painter as imagined by Stella, to make the best of his given space, and without the cover of darkness, Boltanski has been sorely tested. No wonder he seems to have wanted to delay the viewer’s encounter with the space: the first thing you see is a wall of rusted metal boxes, randomly numbered, that blocks the view. What’s hiding behind the wall is, most spectacularly, a mountain of clothes some ten metres high and a giant mechanical claw that repeatedly reaches down to grab a load of them, haul them up to the Palais’s glass ceiling and let them fall – a simple process magnified, mechanised and unrelenting. Unlike those fairground games in which the claw always misses or the toy drops from its grasp on the way up, Boltanski’s clothes don’t slip. They are raised up to the ceiling only to be casually dumped, as if by the hand of an indifferent god.
In the Tate’s Turbine Hall, that might have been enough: a grand gesture, spectacular in scale, oneirically vivid, oddly fascinating to watch, and with wide-ranging resonances but not too explicit. On its own, though, this set-up would have left the Grand Palais looking empty. Boltanski’s solution is to resort to that great cliché of contemporary art, the minimalist grid, which can be boring but is never in bad taste. So the floor of the Grand Palais is occupied by more clothes, mostly coats, spread out in 39 rectangles in three rows, each with a single fluorescent tube suspended above it. These garments in their neat rectangles make a totally flat impression in both senses: they add nothing to the impact of the giant hand scrounging its way through the enormous mound – an image that has at least been thoroughly imagined.
One last, invisible element in the installation is sound: amplified heartbeats, although they sound less like human heartbeats or stylised emblems of sentiment than like industrial machinery – a repetitive booming such as one might hear in a factory or the engine-room of a great ship. It’s effective enough, like a good movie soundtrack, and as another way of filling the space it’s more subtle than the grid of neatly strewn clothing. The rumbling heartbeats also connect the installation to another Boltanski project, another angle on anonymous individuality called Les Archives du coeur: a compendium of recordings of the human heart kept on a Japanese island, which the artist has been collecting since 2005. Visitors to the Grand Palais are invited to go to a side room where theirs can be added to the collection; for five euros you can walk away with a souvenir CD of your contribution. So even though Boltanski hasn’t attempted a Höller-style crowd-pleaser, there’s still that little bit of empty populism: take the sound of your own body home as a high-art spin-off.
Whatever the limits of Boltanski’s art, at least when blown up to this scale, he is a marvellous and apparently indefatigable talker. Two books of interviews have recently been published: The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski (MFA, £26) by Catherine Grenier, the curator of the current installation, and Christian Boltanski (Walther König, €19.80), one of a series of books of interviews by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss curator who is now co-director of the Serpentine Gallery. In the Obrist volume, Boltanski has scribbled over some of his own words, cancelling them out without quite making them illegible. In one such passage, he blames a sclerotic system for the fact that art has developed in appearance but not substance, so that now, ‘instead of having pompous paintings, we have pompous installations.’