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photo-eye Book Reviews: Christian Boltanski

Christian Boltanski,Art by Christian Boltanski. By Catherine
Grenier and Daniel Mendelsohn. 
Published by Flammarion, New York, 2010.

Christian Boltanski
Reviewed by John Mathews
Art by Christian Boltanski. By Catherine Grenier
and Daniel Mendelsohn.
Flammarion, New York, 2010. Hardbound.
212 pp., 150 color and black & white illustrations,

Christian Boltanski takes a comprehensive look at the career of the prolific French artist from 1968 up until 2010. Generously illustrated in full colour, the publication delves into the many facets of Boltanski's practise, which include photography, sculpture, video, printed matter and archival assemblages. Boltanski is perhaps best known for his photo-based installations that invoke feelings of loss, fate, memory, guilt and death. Boltanski mines peripheral photographic sources such as family albums, school photos, detective magazines and obituary photographs and re-contextualises them. By re-photographing and enlarging these disposable or forgotten photographs they become iconic celebrations of memory, and like Warhol, the repetition of images gives the work momentum.

Works such as Dead Swiss from Boltanski's Archive series in the late 1980's show a series of anonymous and enlarged headshots that are laid out in a large grid and cover an entire room. The images are taken from obituaries in a Swiss newspaper and the sheer quantity and scale of the photographs turns the room into a poignant and sombre space that is used to reflect upon oblivion. Much of Boltanski's work is exhibited outside of conventional gallery or museum venues, in spaces such as churches, schools, cinemas and libraries, locations thematically chosen to amplify existing moods within the work.

Christian Boltanski, by Christian Boltanski. Published by Flammarion, 2010.

This retrospective book is one of the most up to date collections of Boltanski's work and it presents many of his definitive installation pieces from over the last thirty years. For those familiar with Boltanski's oeuvre the book could have included more of his artefacts, ephemera and research materials in order to mark it out from other publications on the artist. The book does have an appendix that contains a short collection of such materials like letters, invitations, catalogue covers and studio shots, which provide the viewer with a more intimate insight into Boltanski's practise, like two hand-written letters that Boltanski sent to sixty curators as a mail artwork in 1973. It is disappointing to discover that much of this text-based appendix material is teasingly left un-translated from the original French. Elaborating upon and including more of these lesser-known artefacts would have greatly enhanced the book.

Christian Boltanski, by Christian Boltanski. Published by Flammarion, 2010.

Christian Boltanski, by Christian Boltanski. Published by Flammarion, 2010.

Overall the book is well researched and provides an excellent insight into the many styles and approaches within Boltanski's work. The extensive essay by Catherine Grenier gets to the core of Boltanski's concepts and is peppered with a series of colourful and slightly cryptic stories that Boltanski uses to indirectly explain his work. The book also contains a lively interview between Boltanski and the critic Daniel Mendelsohn where they discuss the many themes within his work such as cultural identity, mortality and the nature of memory.—John Mathews

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John Mathews is an artist and curator from Belfast, Northern Ireland.