Christian Boltanski – 364 Dead Swiss (1990)
Exhibited as part of the ‘Between Memory and Archive’ Exhibition at the Berardo Museum in Lisbon
I’ve been to see this installation by Christian Boltanski at the Berardo museum twice in the last week, and is only the second piece of his work I’ve actually seen face-to-face. The other occasion was twenty years ago at the old Tate (before the Tate Modern). I don’t remember the title of that work, only that it was composed of several enlarged blurry sepia photographs of children hung on the wall of the gallery, with each having a small angle-poise lamp positioned in front. The cables from these lamps spilled down like a weird collection of tentacles which tangled into one another on the floor. A friend had told me of how powerful this piece had been for him, so I was intrigued to see it for myself. I remember finding the collection of anonymous blurred photographs very melancholic, and it immediately brought to mind a holocaust exhibit or the collection of documentary photographs taken of doomed political prisoners in Cambodia in the 1970s. But there is nothing to specifically indicate either of these memories. They conjure up a much more generalized sense melancholy often associated with acts of remembrance, but here it was unhinged from any definitive identity, action or event. I spent a lot of time studying the soft blurred-out images of these children, imagining that each had probably been murdered in some kind of act of terrible genocide. Many of them were smiling, as if in old family photographs.
In the years since seeing this installation at the Tate, Boltanski’s work, particularly that involving found photographs, has been very important to me. His own affective response to found images of anonymous people resonates with my own. His artworks seek to not only harness the found photograph’s intrinsic melancholy, but also to tarry with the memories evoked by their abandoned anonymity. Boltanski tries to restore to each image a dignity and identity. This is, I think, one of the functions of the lamps in the work. Each image is enlarged and held under its own light as if to force us to pay careful attention to it, to really look at it. The anonymous ubiquity of each image is forced into a very particular gaze. I really like engaging in this process, and I respond sympathetically to art, like Boltanski’s, that participate in it.
The installation at the Berardo is monumental in scale, and it is one of the pieces I had specifically come to the museum to see. 364 sepia and black-and-white images of men, women and children are hung uniformly across the entire expanse of three walls of a closed darkened room. Each image is identical in size (slightly larger than A4), and all are housed in narrow black frames. A row of lamps are fixed to the top of each wall, and provide the only illumination in the room. The overwhelming feeling in this room is one of a crypt. Each photographic portrait has been enlarged until it is roughly life-size, rendering them all soft, blurred and somewhat anonymous. Apparently each portrait photograph was cut from the obituary section of Swiss newspapers, and then enlarged. Some are quite formal as if taken from a passport or identification document, with others much less informal and taken in a more domestic environment.
In the first few minutes after you enter the room, you are simply overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of faces presented here, and it is difficult to actually ‘see’ anything at all. Your attention then begins to be drawn to specific images, and you start to linger with some, particularly at eye level. The same process I underwent twenty years earlier, whereby generalized memories of lives lived and lost in time are evoked, begins to happen here. You are forced to begin to look at each image, and then register in each of the different faces on display a life lived. This process of forced imagining begins to steadily accumulate until it seems to reach a level where death, loss and memory become almost palpable. Your gaze begins to move from seeing single individuals to seeing groups of individuals – old men and women, young men and women, boys and girls, those with eyeglasses, hirsute and bald, pretty, plain and ugly. There is just one black person amongst the 364 portraits.
After moving across the different possible sets, your eye and mind begin to settle once again into the sheer scale of the piece as a whole, and it returns as a kind of preserved crypt holding single collective memorial to the anonymous dead. These single images which had been chosen to serve as their final visual obituaries in long forgotten Swiss newspapers, are resurrected by Boltanski, their individual dignity restored through a collective gathering as if they had each been recovered from some single mass grave of time and then placed together in the fellowship of a single monument.