Christian Boltanski is born in Paris in 1944. His early artistic work focuses on the presentation of historical events: Large-format paintings come into being from 1958 to 1967, of which only a few remain (L’EntrŽe des Turcs, 1961). Boltanski then turns increasingly toward personal memories that he uses as formal material and content. Coming to terms with his childhood becomes decisive, which leads to his first film, La vie impossible de Christian Boltanski, which he shows in a Paris cinema in 1968 on the occasion of his first one-man show. More films and photography follow in which Boltanski stages fictive autobiographical fragments.
From 1969 on and simultaneously with his film work, Boltanski begins research on the archival and memory value of materials that also refer to childhood experiences. He reconstructs objects such as handmade earth balls, sculptures made of sugar and toy weapons that he saves in labeled biscuit tins. Boltanski makes a decisive step with the exhibition of objects in glass showcases, Vitrines de référence (1970). During the same period he works on the series Essais de reconstitution d’objets ayant appartenu à Christian Boltanski entre 1948 et 1954. He refers here to modes of museum presentation that later occupy his interest in a major way as well as forms of collective memory and »Spurensicherung« (»Conserving Traces«) (Metken 1977).
In the field of photography Boltanski turns to similar archival aspects, whose lead he claims to derive from ethnographic museums: Everyday photography from estates, family albums, or old newspapers, are enlarged to abstract silhouettes and pieced together as fictitious life stories. Here Boltanski is interested in the relation between individual remembrance and social determination of memory. Photomaterial from friends and favorite pictures from his school class pour intoL’Album Photographique de Christian Boltanski ,1972/73. With a series of Installations called Les Inventaires, he develops a new form of museum presentation. He puts together different estates of fictitious persons and offers them as curator to various museums by mail as exhibitions. One of these projects is realized at the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden in 1973.
Self-staged asides into the area of grotesque clownery begin in 1974 when Boltanski simulates photo sequences and little scenes and creates accompanying series of colored drawings Saynètes comiques (one act plays). In 1975 Boltanski turns again to photography in a formal and experimental way. In addition to the interest in the cultural significance of everyday photography, which he explores in the series Images modèles, he increases his formal experiments in Compositions. In the Compositions murales Boltanski thus seeks to achieve abstract image and space effects of his photography with the aid of lighting. From 1984 on the varied experiments with light and shadow achieve their height in museum space with Théâtre d’Ombres.
At the same time, Boltanski develops an area in his work that leads him distinctly back to his memory work –: unusual Installations are created with Monuments, whose memory cult reminds of reliquaries and refers to public spaces of commemoration with illuminated altar-like Installations of photographic portraits (Monuments: Les enfants de Dijon, Chapelle de la Salpêtrière, Paris 1986). Transitoriness is presented to the eye by symbolic means, not through documentation.
With his Installation Les Archives at the Documenta 7 in 1987, Boltanski’s conceptions of topographic and pictorial aspects of remembrance become even more concrete when he treats the Holocaust theme. Further works in this regard come into being with his Installation Léçons de ténèbres, which he already shows in 1986at the Kunstverein in Munich. This also characterizes that complex of works in the exhibition Réserves – la fête de Pourim in Bern 1989, in which he exhibits articles of clothing as macabre relics.
In 1988 Boltanski’s first large retrospective is dedicated to him in the USA and Canada. With his Berlin work The Missing House from the year 1990 he first executes a work in a city space using sculptural and architectonic means. Christian Boltanski lives and works in Malakoff near Paris.
Jussen, Bernhard (Hg.): Von der künstlerischen Produktion der Geschichte 5. Signal – Christian Boltanski, Göttingen 2004
Semin, Didier u.a.: Christian Boltanski, London 1997
Confusion – Selection. Gespräche und Texte über Bibliotheken, Archive, Depots, von und mit Christian Boltanski: hg. v. Gerhard Theewen, Köln 1996
Gumpert, Lynn: Christian Boltanski. Paris 1994
Christian Boltanski. Inventar: Ausst.-Kat. Hamburger Kunsthalle, hg. v. Uwe M. Schneede, Hamburg 1991
Christian Boltanski. Réserves, la fête de Pourim: Ausst.-Kat. Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel, Basel 1989