Interview: Christian Boltanski

I caught up with French artist Christian Boltanski when he was in Sydney to install his major installation Chance at Carriageworks. First shown in the French Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, the giant scaffolding installation questions probability and the role of fate. Here Boltanski shares his views on the act of creation, immortality, religion, and the current state of contemporary art. 

 ©  Lucy Rees. 

 © Lucy Rees. 

LUCY REES: How did art come to you? 

CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI: For me there are very few times in creation in your life. One time is when you become an adult, one time is when your parents die, and the other time is when you are very old. I was very aware of this time – the body changed, the spirit changed. I remember realising when my childhood had finished. I tried like an archaeologist to find some photos or objects from a past time. I wanted to put everything in boxes and try to hold on but I knew I couldn't. 

 LR: Is your work defined or categorised by these moments of creation?

CB: Yes, in a sense, but at the same time I’m always with the same problems.  We’re painting the same people all our life - it’s just the way we look at them that changes.  If you experience trauma, you can speak about it in so many different ways. You can speak about landscape, you can speak about your food; it’s always different. Trauma is the beginning of life as an artist.  I love Louise Bourgeois – she was continually citing the trauma from her childhood (she found out that her English governess was also her father’s mistress). Artists speak about their problems all their life, we just describe it differently at different times.  

LR: You have spoken a lot about the role of an artist, that they need to be a mirror to everybody else. What do you think visitors might take away from Chance? Should we accept our own mortality?

CB: It’s a question I ask myself and one I think everyone can ask: ‘is chance our destiny?’ You are what you are because your parents made love at that exact moment, and if they made love one second after you would be different. The fact that you were born means that there are no other children born because of you – you’ve killed them in a way. Is it destiny? Was it written somewhere that this was to be your life? Is it useful that you are here? Or is it simply by chance?

LR: You’ve said that this work has a more positive and optimistic feeling than other works. When you’ve documented children before, you’ve said that actually they’re dead because they have grown up. In this way, in Chance everybody’s dead. They are dead because they can no longer be that exact age.

CB: Yes, they even look like dead people. Babies are just as close to death. I think it is very important to know that we are going to die. Now we refuse the fact of dying. There was once serenity in dying where you had all your children around you in a ceremony and would utter your last words with something like, ‘I love the sky’.

 LR: In 2009 you sold your life to the gambler and founder of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), David Walsh.  He agreed to pay you a fee as a monthly stipend to film your studio 24 hours a day and transmit the images live to the museum. Should you live longer than 73 years, Walsh will end up paying more than the work is worth and will have lost. If you die within 8 years, Walsh will have purchased the work at less than its agreed upon value, and will have won. Will he win?

CB: I think it’s possible.  It is important for me to know that it’s possible. I am 69 years old. I hope to still be here in 20 years, but I know it’s normal if I die in 3 years.

LR: What’s your relationship like him? He also has a fascination with death.

CB: I think he’s a very clever man, one of the cleverest people I’ve met in my life.  I can’t say he’s a friend.  He did not want that. He believes he is stronger than chance, that he can beat the odds. The one who believes that, and who thinks he is stronger than god is the devil. It’s the tradition of Christianity to fight against the devil. David Walsh is the devil.

LR: You claim that you’re not religious at all, but you often talk about religion.

CB:  I don’t know what exists – I don’t know what God is.  What I am sure of is that there is a lock and everybody’s looking for a key. I’m looking for it too and perhaps one day I shall find it. 

LR: Do you have any unrealised dreams?  You speak about leaving a legacy – is there a last major project?

CB: My project in Tasmania, because that’s the end – it ends when I die.

LR: David Walsh said that it would be great if you died in your studio but that it’s unethical to ask for that. What will you do with your ashes? 

CB: David Walsh can have thousands of hours of my life, but he is never going to have me. What to do with my ashes is a real problem though. David wanted them but I did not agree. You know once a worker in a lost property department told me that she found some ashes that had been left behind from a funeral? The person actually went to the lost property office to reclaim them. There were so many keys there too. Keys are incredibly important to us, but when you see them clumped together they are meaningless objects. These objects exist like people – you look at them when you love them and if you don’t love them they are meaningless. The reason I work with clothes is because of this idea. If you go to a market and take a jacket home, that jacket gets a new life.

 LR: So old clothes markets are like cemeteries?

 CB: Yes, they are cemeteries waiting for lovers.  

 LR: When you were first starting to make art in the 60s, 70s and 80s you said your mentors were Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol. You've also said you love Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer.  What do you think about the state of contemporary art now? 

CB: I think there are always good new artists – nothing is finished.  What is a little depressing for me is the ‘art market’.  When I began to make work the important people were the curator and the critic, but now the important people are the dealers.  Sometimes art seems like fashion – good for one year and out the next. Just clothes to sell. When I started exhibiting I was 26 at a gallery in Paris but I didn’t sell and I was proud to not sell.  People who sold were stupid.  It's much harder for young artists now. I’m not against selling but what I think is dangerous is when the market becomes more important than the idea. It’s a pity. I remember going to gallery openings and everyone would be there and you could meet and talk. It was a smaller, more intimate world, and now it’s this big thing. You don’t have the same personal conversations anymore. 

LR: Did your dealer Ileana Sonnabend mind you not selling? 

CB: No, not at all! I began to sell at 45 or something like that. Ileana never asked me to sell anything.

LR: You've moved away from galleries now.

CB: It's not the right time in my life for that. I thought perhaps I could make a show every 5 years or something, but it doesn’t interest me. For now I am working on big installations. 

LR: What are you working on next? 

CB: The next will be in São Paulo, next March. After that I’ll do a big piece in Chile in the north where there is a dry hot desert, a place where you can see the sky better than anywhere, and there's a large cemetery. I want to make the piece and then leave it to die by itself – for one year or six months, two years or ten years, I don’t know. 


Christian Boltanski was born in 1944, Paris. 

 An edited version of this interview appears on the ARTAND Australia website: