Spotlight Essay: Christian Boltanski, Padre Mariano, 1994
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History & Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis
In Padre Mariano (1994) Christian Boltanski makes extraordinary use of ordinary materials, employing an anonymous photograph, display case, linen cloth, and electric lamp to create intense emotional effects and an almost religious aura. The work features an enlarged, black-and-white photograph of a woman, which is mounted on transparent Plexiglas, through which linen cloth is visible. Boltanski found this photograph, which was originally sent to Padre Mariano, one of Italy’s first television evangelists, at an Italian flea market.1 In Padre Mariano, the enlarged photograph suggests the life and memory of an individual. Yet we do not know the name of the person, the occasion for which the picture was taken, or the particular reasons it was sent to Padre Mariano. The wrinkled linen cloths behind the picture show traces of use, but the fact that they are sealed and protected within the case, preserved as almost sacred remains of the past, prevents us from gleaning more information about their specific histories. Many critics and curators have described Boltanski’s artwork as representations of memories and preservations of the past.2 Yet Padre Mariano, like much of Boltanski’s evolving work, seems to evoke memories of an individual while simultaneously questioning the possibility of preserving and communicating them to a broader audience.3
In the mid-1990s, when Boltanski created Padre Mariano, he frequently explored the idea of relics in his work, accentuating their emotional effects and religious associations.4 For instance, Boltanski’s 1996 Reliquaire, Les Vêtements (Reliquary, The Clothing) evokes the form and function of early reliquaries: elaborately decorated containers used from the fourth century through the Middle Ages to preserve and display the remains of martyred saints or objects associated with them, such as cloth. Boltanski’s 1996 Reliquaire uses simpler, contemporary materials: it is essentially a crude wooden and metal box with a screen across the front. Semitransparent photographs of anonymous children mounted on the screen give them an almost “dematerialized” presence. A florescent light inside the box creates a halo-like glow above the children’s heads, as if it were a spiritual light emanating from the contents of the Reliquaire, imbuing the images with a saintly effect. The lower portion of the reliquary contains clothes that appear to have belonged to the children. Understood within the religious context of reliquaries, these simple objects and images suggest sacred remnants from the lives of those depicted.
Padre Mariano similarly draws on the idea of personal remnants infused with a religious aura. We do not know this woman, yet Boltanski creates a strong sense of pathos with her anonymous photograph. A personal photograph is typically the means for us to recognize or remember an individual who is close to us; viewing this anonymous picture, in contrast, we feel the absence of personal ties and memories surrounding the image. The fact that Boltanski used a photograph found at a flea market—no longer in the hands of Padre Mariano—further suggests that the depicted subject has been forgotten.
The linens inside the case evoke altar cloths, sheets from hospital beds, and burial shrouds. Yet we cannot open the box to inspect the sheets, frustrating our desire to obtain additional information. As in his Reliquaire, Les Vêtements, the case preserves seemingly sacred materials from the past; but it also raises the question of why they should be preserved if the stories associated with the objects and the memories of the individual are gone. The lamp illuminates the figure’s face, as if indicating her importance, and also appears to create a halo above her head. But rather than a light emanating from inside the box (as if radiating from the sacred nature of the material), here it is projected artificially from the lamp outside, like a spotlight. Furthermore, the electrical cord dangles unceremoniously in front of the subject’s face, prompting us to question the work’s seemingly reverent, memorial function.
Padre Mariano, like most of Boltanski’s work, creates a powerful evocation of an individual’s past, but also suggests the limits of trying to preserve it. His work encourages our identification with familiar materials, yet confronts us with their opacity, continually challenging us to rethink the intersections of the individual and collective past, and the extent to which personal lives and memories can be shared.
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Christian Boltanski, Padre Mariano, 1994. Vitrine, photograph, white linen, and lamp, 47 1/4 x 23 5/8 x 4 5/8". University purchase, Charles H. Yalem Art Fund, 2000. WU 2000.0003.
Great art deserves a pilgrimage. We should travel to see it. Literalists might argue that this can hardly be avoided. But the long winter's journey to Paris is not just a necessity if you want to see Christian Boltanski's momentous new show: it is peculiarly apt. For when you get there, the journey continues.
An icy breeze shivers through the colossal emptiness of the Grand Palais, desolate, bare, its exit signs creaking. The structure rises high above the void, a gigantic birdcage of iron curlicues and struts in which pigeons clatter in hope of a perch. Stretching out before you is nothing but an array of floor-level encampments, each marked out by four rusting poles with a neon tube slung between them. The last light is away in the distance.
Sixty-nine camps, but there are no tents and no living people, only thousands of old clothes lying face down on the floor. Is this where they fell or where they were laid? The irresistible metaphor springs literal in the visitor's mind, as if clothes could have bodies or faces.
You walk, you look, you search for evidence among the mildewed raincoats and threadbare denim. Here is a corduroy jacket, almost new, and a faded gabardine; there is a baby's knitted cardigan. They were young, they were old, they were not ready to die, poor departed souls who leave nothing behind but shucked garments. Mown down, laid out in groups, they have all met a terrible end. This is apparent without a single bloodstain or name; Boltanski's evidence is both more and less than proof.
And as you walk, the sense is of honouring the dead, of trying to observe the details of each and every one. These grouped clothes may represent mass graves, or corpses arrayed for identification in the school gym, but they also constitute a kind of cemetery. For the experience is just the same: that there is nobody here and yet the place is crowded. Personnes, the piece is called: people, but at the same time no one.
The title is as characteristic of Christian Boltanski's art as the work itself, being perfectly judged and distilled. I cannot think of a single piece by this poet-artist that is not equally affecting and concise. It is no surprise that he has long been considered France's greatest living artist but, at 65, Boltanski has surpassed himself. The third in the Monumenta series – comparable with the Unilever Series in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern – is his most profound installation yet.
Boltanski has always been a maker of monuments and memorials. His medium is the human trace and the memento mori. In the 1970s, he used to exhibit the "documents" of his own life, letters, scraps, locks of hair, photographs of himself as a child (which were probably nothing of the sort). Later, he began to commemorate the lives of others.
TheDead Swiss, the Children of Dijon: these world-famous shrines were assembled from photographs cut from obituaries, heaps of secondhand clothes, biscuit tins that might, or might not, contain personal effects; false memories, so to speak, especially since the dead were always anonymous. But these objects and images, no matter their provenance, were inevitably powerful for the sympathetic mind can hardly help but reconstruct a life from the smallest and most trivial of relics.
Pawned brooches, lost umbrellas, dogeared telephone books with their intensely intimate yet resolutely impersonal listings: your mind would rush in, imagining all these other people in other places. It did not matter that the evidence was meagre, partial, perhaps entirely specious, because the objects themselves were real, had once belonged to real livings beings.
That their owners were unknown equated very precisely with the universality of the evidence – a watch, a coat – and the poignant truth that one could only mourn the unknown through an act of the imagination.
This was an art that spoke so clearly and simply that a child could understand it and so it is, to some extent, with Personnes. The austerity of the scene is overwhelming, compounded by the booming heartbeats that seem to emit from nowhere and yet all around – time being measured out by human life.
But what makes this work – this experience – different is that it does not depend upon reality in quite the same way. You do not imagine these clothes to be those of murdered people so much as humanity en masse, flattened like biblical crops. And the metaphor climaxes in a towering mound of clothes, above which a five-fingered claw hangs from a crane, occasionally moving towards the pile, hoisting a random garment and then, just as arbitrarily, letting it drop.
You were in a necropolis, now you are in purgatory: balanced between heaven and hell, witnessing the hand of God. Except, of course, that you are in a freezing, cacophonous place surrounded by secondhand clothes and probably eager to be gone. That is the exceptional achievement of the piece. All its elements are frankly simple and apparent, you see how they combine, how it all works. Yet none of this stifles its resonant truths, that in the midst of life we are in death, that man's inhumanity to man continues beyond Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Rwanda.
Boltanski keeps you there, looking and thinking, walking through the work instead of standing before it like a picture. And then he asks you to record your own heartbeat in a supremely pointless but utopian project. All the world's heartbeats stretching out until the last syllable of recorded time: that should stand against oblivion. Or so it seems, listening to their rhythms filling the Grand Palais – a sound fearful to some, joyful to others, heralding one's release back to life from this premonitory vision. The choice, as in life, is all yours.