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Largest anthological exhibition by Christian Boltanski organized in Italy on view in Bologna
Christian Boltanski, Anime. Di luogo in luogo, installation view at MAMbo – Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna, 2017. Photo: Matteo Monti.

BOLOGNA.- Until November 12, 2017 MAMbo – Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna presents Anime. Di luogo in luogo, the largest anthological exhibition by Christian Boltanski organized in Italy.

The exhibition, curated by Danilo Eccher, is the heart of the homonymous special project which presents the work of this great protagonist of the international art scene through an itinerary with different simultaneous interventions in different areas of the city.

Born in Paris in 1944, like many European artists born during or just after the end of World War II, Boltanski has to deal with his urge to elaborate the deep trauma caused by the war and the sense of tragedy embedded in history. In an attempt to represent the feeling of loss, he uses methods that are typical of human sciences such as anthropology, sociology, and archiving to create a system of memories based on the meticulous collection of traces of what has been lost.

The exhibition display at the MAMbo, presents a selection of 25 of Boltanski’s most significant works, including installations and videos produced by the artist over the past thirty years, two of which are exhibited for the first time in Europe: Volver and Animitas (blanc).

Through an installation of great emotional involvement, Boltanski imagines the museum as a cathedral, reorganising the exhibition spaces with one central nave and two lateral aisles, to design an immersive setting in which light becomes a material of art. All the rooms are completely plunged in semi-darkness, illuminated only by small light sources that emphasizes the evocative dimension of his work.

Placed at the centre of this all-encompassing perceptive experience, the public is urged to become an active and empathetic subject in the narration of the obsessively-recurring themes of Boltanski's research: the coexistence of life and death on the horizon of human existence, the reactivation of memory through the symbolic value of ephemeral objects, the lost fight against the inevitable nature of oblivion, the concept of time as inexorable end of a decadent flow, the proof as a means of compensation of what is absent.

At the threshold, the installation Coeur plunges the public into the flow of time through a pressing synesthetic device of signs and sounds. The surface of black mirrors that wrap all the walls of the room accompanies the amplified recording of the artist’s heartbeat, in the light of a blinding flickering bulb light flashing at the same rate. In the state of powerful perceptual alienation here generated, the mirrors return to the eyes of the viewers their own image, reflected in the shadow as a ghostly appearance. A dramatic epiphany of the dissolution underlying everyone’s beating heart.

The concept of time, interpreted not in its sound meaning of historical development but rather through the more fragile and unstable lens of approaching an inescapable process, is at the centre also of the video Entre temps, in which, frame after frame, the face of the artist changes in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Projected on a curtain that marks the passage between two exhibition spaces, the work seems to be a metaphorical invitation to "enter time" by literally going through the face of the artist to access the spectacular installation Regards that transforms the next space, the Chimneys Hall, into a fluid go through space of memory.

Forty glances printed on light, see-through fabrics hung on steel cables hold the evanescent aura of souls of whom all that is left is a photographic trace blurred by the artist's shooting and editing process. Anonymous faces and eyes, coming from the immense photographic archive collected by Boltanski over the years, testify the passage of time in their constant floating conveyed by a symbolic suspension between life and death.

If in Entre temps the spectator's gaze is projected over time through the artist’s recognizable face, here it is in close contact, vis à vis, with anonymous faces to suggest a more immediate identification process.

These eyes intersect, at the centre of the same central nave, the majestic installation Volver, a 7-metre high pyramid structure entirely covered with gold metal foil isothermal blankets recalling the tragic images of migrants rescue operations. The dialogue established by Boltanski between this work and Regards seems to suggest a close proximity between the presence / absence of those faces which today no longer exist, of which only a diaphanous look has survived, and the migrants, today's nameless ghosts, united by the common deprivation of their individual identities.

In the installations, created since the 1980s, Boltanski's expressive trait marks the passage from a poetic centred on the "small memory", an autobiographical mythology in search of traces of his past, towards a more universal language arising from a reflection on the value of remembrance as a narrative element to piece back together the memory of every individual as a person whose life is unique and unmistakable.
Intertwining private and public history, Boltanski obsessively uses photographic images as his main tool to investigate memory, both because of its effectiveness to convey individual and collective memory and for its ability to trigger a kind of emotional resonance with the fragility and precariousness of human existence.

The combination of photographic images and common objects, such as light bulbs and tin boxes, produces solemn installations with a strong dramatic character like Autel Lycée Chases, a series of black and white photographs portraying the faces of Jewish teenagers in Vienna found in a 1931 school year book. These mute fragments bring us back to the period before Adolf Hitler's rise to power, suggesting the premonition of a tragic destiny that attributes to this work the value of a place of worship and tribute so that the innocent victims of Nazi barbarism are never forgotten.

The artist’s interest for the existence of anonymous and ordinary people has inspired also the installation Le grand mur de Suisses Mort, a wall built with 147 tin boxes, each labeled with a portrait taken from the obituaries of a Swiss newspaper: for each picture, Boltanski creates small memorials to give them back the composed dignity of memory.

Also designed around the idea of an uninterrupted dialogue with the absence of people swallowed up by history is Monuments, a series of highly expressive works in which the artist manipulates images of the past and objects, icons typical of his vocabulary of memory.

The compositional solution of these installations, with their vertical layout of photographic icons with blurry black and white faces surrounded by electrical cables, light bulbs and, in some cases, tin boxes arranged as pedestals, recall ancient religious architectures like altars and pyramids. The relic aspect of commemoration is loaded with yet another sacral connotation, with the works being displayed in niches specifically created out of the lateral exhibition halls surrounding the Chimneys Hall at the centre, to recall the chapels dedicated to the figures of saints.

In the three Veroniques works, the fluctuating photographic image printed on fabric is used as an evocative clue linked to a subject and its absence. The soft fabric that frames the faces of the women portrayed and the neon light that illuminates them from above, give them the traits and attributes of a sindonic apparition.

The ideal epilogue of the exhibition is the 11-hour video Animitas (blanc), the second part of the Animitas project, which started in 2015 filming a single sequence shot, from dawn to dusk, of a touching installation with hundreds of metal poles to which Japanese bells jingling in the wind are tied, planted in the Atacama desert in Chile.
In Animitas (blanc), these "little souls" are reproduced in a snow-covered field on the island of Orleans, Quebec, with a layout that reproduces the starry sky as it will be visible in that same place in one hundred years. The ephemeral and transient work, exposed to weather elements and therefore destined to progressively disappear, is designed by Boltanski as a music score that can be reproduced indefinitely in other contexts.

Tinged by a spiritual dimension, this work represents a new direction in Boltanski's research which reveals a calmer state of mind with which the artist addresses the issues he has been exploring since the beginning of his career. Poetically set up with a lawn of hay and flowers that plunge the spectator in the cycle of nature, the work establishes a specular relationship with the installation Coeur in the first room, anchoring the heartbeat of a unique individual to the sounds of cosmic time under the beyond-human immensity of heaven.

Faced with this manifestation of the sublime, lost in the hypnotic shades of grey on the horizon, visitors can dream or meditate, but they cannot find any answers. In a journey of reflection exploring hope and the impossibility of endurance, we are left suspended on a threshold where the sadness of worldly matters resonates.
As everyone's life never ceases to interrogate the sense of being in this world, Christian Boltanski's art does not look for answers, it is a question that wants to remain unanswered.

The exhibition is accompanied by the small book, the ninth of the Instant Book series by Edizioni MAMbo, available for purchase at the museum's bookshop.

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