Balancing Shadow and Substance

by Anne W. Tucker

Christian Boltanski’s Shadows was an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, October 24, 1991-January 5, 1992.

Christian Boltanski derives from traditional theater many of his installations’ key elements. Just as you await a curtain rising before a play begins, if there is more than one other person ahead of you to view Boltanski’s Shadows, your expectations are held in suspension until those ahead move aside. Your only access is a window that barely accommodates two adults. Over their shoulders shadows dance on dimly lit walls, but until you can lean on the window ledge, you must deal with anticipation and impatience. Although favorably disposed towards Boltanski’s work, I don’t like waiting. “This is manipulative. Why make the window so small?” I thought. Most spectators lingered at the window, but when finally finished, they moved away from the window smiling. Boltanski understands that the piece’s success requires an intimate, singular encounter.

Beyond the window, allusions to the theater continue. This is also the stuff of campfires in dark woods and Grimm’s fairy tales. We behold an ancient dance of the spirits with the magician’s hand fully revealed. Skulls and wart-nosed profiles challenge spindly bodies armed with the spears and whips. These ancient armies bob and overlap. Those tin and paper figures hanging from wires in the center of the room are blown by a whirling fan and magnified into ghostly giants by five lamps. The lights are bright; the shadows are crisp. And if you are patient, an avenging angel emerges on the right, crosses the ceiling, and disappears into the left horizon. “There he comes,” exclaimed a man to his wife, calling her back when she’d turned away before the angel appeared. Making you wait again, the angel reappears on the right pitching across these mischievous goblins.

Seeing the mechanics keeps the piece from being seamless, slick, and hokey. It reminds us there is an artist at play. This has been created for our enchantment. Like a child watching the mobile over a crib, we can become momentarily lost in a slowly shifting pantomime. Boltanski isn’t trying to trick us. It’s an invitation to release our imaginations and to let “the individual work… trigger… associations that exist already in the viewer’s mind,” says Blotanski in the gallery notes.

At CAM on October 23, Boltanski spoke of the audience’s role in completing a piece with their stimulated memories. While insisting that an artist speaks only about his own village, he also said autobiography speaks not about the writer, but about us. He is relying on the basic truths that obsess him to engage the viewers as well. He also emphasized his willingness to let the piece mean whatever the viewer perceives that it connotes: “If someone says to me, your art is so happy, I say you are right. If they say your art is so sad, I say you are right. I was in Japan, and they said you are so Japanese.”

Boltanski’s shadow pieces are unique in his work because they do not employ found objects or photographs, but are entirely constructed from his imagination, or rather from our collective imaginations. Other installations employ photographs, clothing, and other personal artifacts that evoke the presence of a previous owner. Boltanski’s context for the object may be fictional, but he relies on the object’s capacity to be mnemonic of another human. More than for their aesthetic properties, he chooses objects, especially photographs, because they are relics of reality. On the one hand he is an ethnographer of experiences through collected objects; on the other, he conjures more primal manifestations of emotion. Each of his disparate installations shares this sense of drama and unabashed appeal to viewers’ collective memories, experiences, and imaginations. His gift is to balance shadow and substance.

Anne Wilkes Tucker is the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.