Remembering & Forgetting

Memory, or rater remembering and forgetting, seem to really be the central themes of the Christian Boltanski monograph Boltanksi: Time. Time is obvious, hence the title of the book. It is everywhere in Boltanski’s work. Appropriated photos from long ago, elements of autobiography and personal timeline, death. All hint at the passage of time. But memory, that is something a bit less tangible. And forgetting perhaps even less so. How does one quantify what is remembered or forgotten and then display that in an artistic context.

The work Humans (1994) is perhaps the kind of work that most readily comes to mind when one thinks of Boltanski. A room is covered with anonymous faces and bare bulb-ed lights are hung from the ceiling at various heights. Lighting is always carefully considered in Boltanksi’s photo-centric installations and he considers himself, not surprisingly, a light artist (or at least did at the time he was working in this manner). But, what is central to most viewers’ experience is the photos. We are drawn to pictures naturally. Time is present since, as Aleida Assmann reminds us, photographs “document, while simultaneously compensating for, the passage of time.”

All photos are about time, because they all take place in the past, but Boltanski is expert at making time hang heavy in the gallery space. By the placing of the lights, though, photos become obscured as one moves around the room, and in later works the sheer number of photos makes it impossible to take them all in. These works, then, become about remembering and forgetting, too.

Forgetting is essential as no memory lives on forever. They can be passed down culturally as stories and anecdotes, but eventually the real memories of people and events are gone. A work that is perhaps more interesting, and more germane to the topic of time, is Les archives du conservatoire de musique. It’s an archive created for no one, almost no one ever sees it, it just sits in the basement and exists in time and collects dust.

Literal traces of the passage of time build up through the dust of disuse. But this too is about forgetting, since very few people have visited it and those that do are probably left with just a vague impression before too long. And what happens to it after Boltanski is gone? And the people who gave him permission to do it are gone? The work then becomes forgotten until someday someone stumbles upon and wonders what it is all about, or perhaps decides the space has another purpose and simply throws everything out.

A lot of these consideration of time and memory run throughout my work. But how to best handle the awesome task of remembering and recording is a constant realm for exploration. An interest in old family photos is appearing, but I wonder if dealing with relations is different from dealing with found or appropriated photos. Perhaps the quest to find commonalities, memories, and stories actually gets in the way. Boltanski does a fantastic job of telling stories with images, even if the images were not originally a part of that story.

(This is from the archives, I’m still exploring but I won’t pretend to have found answers)