Watching the Clock

examines Christian Boltanski’s new exhibition Faire-part, and discusses the artist’s exploration of time, art and death

Image: Bracha L. Ettinger

Image: Bracha L. Ettinger

As Paris’ Marian Goodman gallery celebrates its 20th birthday, Christian Boltanski hosts his new exhibition, entitled Faire-part. The installation, which opened in October, is a contemplation on the themes of  disappearance and the passing of time. These themes aren’t alien to Boltanski, who said in an interview with The Guardian that his work “has never evolved,” and that he deals in “death, breath, and nature in decay”.

In dealing with the last theme, Boltanski allows his work to naturally deteriorate without intervention once the exhibition has started. The installation Animitas combines a video of the Atacama desert along with a grass strewn floor. The exhibition runs until December, by which time these natural features will have decayed, echoing the theme of death that runs throughout Faire-part. Animitas is however also made up of hundreds of Japanese bells, which reflect the configuration of the sky on the day of Boltanski’s birth, contrasting the ideas of life and death.

These more subtle ruminations on death are then offset by a much more overt example: a stopwatch counting the seconds that both he and the gallery’s youngest employee have been alive. At the point of Boltanski’s death, the stopwatch will cease its counting.

Faire-part is art being produced in a social climate that is obsessed with the concept of

The clock can be interpreted in multiple ways: initially the counting of seconds may prove to be a terrifying reminder of the speed with which time passes, however on more careful consideration it is an example of just how much time there is in an average lifespan.
Boltanski is creating art in a society that has an obsession with death. This obsession is found particularly in developed countries. As our standard of life and life expectancy has increased, human beings are left with more time on which to ponder death, leaving us preoccupied with the  unfortunately finite nature of life.

This privileged position allows us, for better or for worse, to concentrate on the concept of death, leading to art such as Boltanski’s, which serves as a morbid reminder of our mortality.

Faire-part is art that is being produced in a social climate that is similarly obsessed with the concept of remembrance after death. Perhaps Boltanski, in creating an installation that ends at the moment of his death, has instead created a piece that will ensure his longevity at the end of his life.

For Boltanski, art is the practice of conveying emotions. However, the commercialisation of art means that works are often also associated with the level of commercial success that they will achieve, both while the artist is alive and after they are gone.
Therefore in creating art that focuses on the ephemeral nature of life, Boltanski has created something that will succeed him after his death. It seems unlikely that when Boltanski dies, and the clock stops, there will be no attention brought to the event, leaving him able to continue to provoke thought from his audience after his death.

If Boltanski’s considerations of death are to be seen as purely that, then perhaps they are predictable and just another example of a theme that has been overdone. However, if we see his work as something that reminds us of death, but simultaneously of the potential of life, then the work is much more than what we first think.

‘Faire-part’, the French phrase for ‘announcement’, is often followed by a qualifier. While one of these may be ‘de décès’ (“of death”) it could also be ‘de naissance’ (“of birth”), leaving it up to the observer to decide what they take away from the exhibition.
Boltanski interweaves the theme of death with reminders of the capacity for life, creating something much more original.

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