Christian Boltanski (Paris, 1944) defines himself as a painter, though from 1967 onwards he stops working on purely pictorial material and instead focuses on creating varied technical pieces in which content plays a key role. In some ways he considers his pictorial strategy through other mediums, but still retains his fictional and figurative approach.
He embarks upon his artistic career with numerous large-scale pieces based around the theme of Paintings of History and Dramatic Events. These are followed by a series of short films recorded between 1968 and 1969, for instance The Impossible Life of Christian Boltanski, The Coughing Man, El hombre que chupa (The Man Who Sucks) and All I Remember. After 1970 his work diversifies with the production of three thousand balls of earth, nine hundred small knives and booby traps, the use of biscuit tins to preserve moments of his existence and diverse mail art such as the works The Letter Asking for Help and Christian Boltanski at Five Years and Three Months Apart (1979).
Boltanski's artistic itinerary is characterised by the pursuit of “storytelling” in which he brings diverse elements into play that are extracted from memories, childhood nightmares and religious liturgies. He is intimately linked to the development of forms from his epoch and the most prominent avant-garde movements from the Seventies and Eighties: Pop Art, New Realism, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Art Brut, Arte Povera, etc. Nevertheless, Boltanski cannot be grouped into any of them as his journey is a solitary one, combining highly personal poetry with certain reflections on the world of art and contemporary trends.
This exhibition is Boltanski's first in Spain. After participating in the Documenta VIII in Kassel and with a retrospective of his output from his time spent in the USA, the French artist presents his work with an exhibition conceived especially for the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
The artist begins with a selection of faces from the archives of the Spanish magazine “El Caso”, whereby he creates a monument in reference to the past of the Centro de Arte building, previously the Provincial Hospital of Madrid, akin to Antoni Muntadas' in his exhibition Híbridos (Hybrids) at the beginning of 1988.
Similar to his 1972 piece Detective, Boltanksi uses images from the French crime magazine to create confusion in his installation El Caso through the fact that it is not clear whether the portraits are victims or murderers. The presence of large shelves packed with piles of creased, folded sheets portrays the idea of a hospital, and a concentration camp. The artist uses this device repeatedly as a metaphor for the idea of something anonymous and unclassifiable and as a paradigmatic symbol of the death of contemporary society.
In the adjoining rooms there is a version of Bougies (Candles), presented for the first time by the artist in the Parisian church La Salpetrière in 1986. In catholic liturgy the flame symbolizes the divine, held up by the wax that represents the flesh. In the night services in Holy Week, extinguishing candles alludes to the progressive disappearance of life.
In the third space there is a new version of Ombres (Shadows), which dates back to 1984. Boltanski puts forward an ironic counter-point to the solemnity and dramatism of the rooms, just like a child's nightmare as the mime artists turn and expand, like rag dolls, with derision.
The artist sets forth an exercise of liberation with this strategy of contradictions: taking humour and irony from images with high dramatic and emotional content.