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Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

We start from Christian Boltanski in this conversation, his oeuvre and artists books, and compare those with your private collection and book projects. I will address the two simultaneously as they raise similar issues. I also find Boltanski’s biography particulary interesting. We will be talking about his personal history at some point. We will also discuss various aspects of your way of working as a curator, collector, and publisher and as director of Kesselskramer an international creative agency doing things differently in the field of communications.

Christian Boltanski spread Kaddish

I assume a large amount of Boltanski’s publications are represented in your collection. And I would like to clarify why his artist’s strategy is so fascinating to you. When did you first encounter artists’ books by Christian Boltanski, which, by the way, all happen to be exhibition catalogues?

kaddish cover 

Erik Kessels (EK):

Yes, indeed. When I was 20 years old I became interested in the work of Boltanski, after seeing a number of exhibitions. That had mainly to do with a different use of imagery, which has a specific intent and a different meaning is assigned to it. Boltanski played a lot with that. That part was for me very interesting. It all comes together in the book Kaddish, in which he makes a story in pictures, and is trying to depict the history of the Holocaust. And he does that with images deriving at times from that period, as soon as you see for example soldiers, but otherwise, fictional pictures are what we see. By putting these images in that historically charged context, you assume it works. In Kaddish a lot of pictures are collected coming from that period. In the back of the book you will see people depicted, these are victims, shown in dark photographs, in fact they are just found photographs from a Mexican newspaper in which many accident victims are depicted. He [Boltanski] has re-used and re-worked this material in other artwork as well. He (re-) uses images to help convey a particular story. For me that was the first interesting point of reference.

boltanski_christian_parkett_22 cover

MT:

Is this found material referring to El Caso (1988)?

 

EK:

Yes, some of that footage is reflected in Kaddish.

 

MT:

Exactly what happened? You were 20 years old and what did you run into? Kaddish was not the first acquaintance with the work of Boltanski, I imagine?

 

EK:

No, I had not seen his first books, but his first exhibitions. In the Van Abbe Museum for example. So that is the way I encountered it.

 

MT:

Had you already started collecting his artists’ books in those days?

 

EK:

No, not really…

 

 

MT:

But you did buy the exhibition catalogues?

 

EK:

No, not at that time …

 

MT:

When did you start collecting Boltanski’s artists’ books and why?

 

EK:

First of all, COLLECTING as such is not something that is of interest to me. It is something that I do, but not along the lines of “I have a collection of…” I bought these books, in order to gather and to record knowledge, and because of the tactility of such an object. To accumulate knowledge about the way Boltanski deals with that aspect of book making. To find out how the editing is done. Those are for me more important reasons to acquire the books than to suggest I’m working on collecting his catalogues.

boltanski les abonnees du telephone

For example, Boltanski has made a phonebook in Malmö. The artist’s book [Les Habitants de Malmö] is a phone directory of the city of Malmö. He simply puts that phone directory as his book on the market, several months after the city phone book was printed. And the only thing that Christian Boltanski has added is a rectification because people had already died during that period, and the facts no longer matched the data in the phone book. Getting acquainted with his work is one thing, but the object in itself: how he makes such a rectification and puts the appendix into the publication is what I find interesting. Many of those artists’ books come into view much later, with the rise of the Internet, with eBay, when you suddenly have access to many more countries and people who started selling their things.

boltanski-christian les-habitants-de-malmo-cover

MT:

But when did you actually start collecting? You said that when you were 20 you visited that first exhibition…  

 

EK:

About ten years later or so… Since I was 14 years old, I went to the Documenta in Kassel. My parents were not art-minded people, but considered the international art manifestation interesting to visit. They had heard about it, and we lived near the German border, and in Munster there was a kind of out- door exhibition; from there we went to Kassel. I felt it all being very interesting; a lot of information tumbles over you, when you’re out there for a few days.

 

Again, the fact that I later started buying these publications, was because I was aware of them; how many books he had made, in the different forms of expression: newspapers, to which Boltanski had contributed for example.

 

MT:

Were you informed about his publications? How did you know they existed? Where did you find his artists’ books?

 

EK:

Once you’ve committed yourself to reading, and seeing what Boltanski has produced, you notice that he has made such publications as a catalogue of his own artists’ books as catalogues. You look and start searching for the publications mentioned. And I often went to Walter König bookseller in Cologne, which is near my parents again. These are the places you may find his books, and of course on the Internet, on eBay.

 

MT:

How large is your collection of Boltanski books? And to what extent do you strive for completeness? How many books did Christian Boltanski actually make?

 

EK:

Not that I am aware of the total amount, nor am I tracking numbers, but this section of my collection is quite complete. I think I have something like over 300 books by Boltanski. Let’s see; no I have 230 publications.

 

MT:

And you purchase at regular intervals?

 

EK:

Now he no longer brings out so much new work. Again, in the beginning of the Internet, with the advent of eBay, when there were many bids, I looked every day … just a few minutes … I chased multiple artists’ books, for example Japanese photobooks. In the early days of the Internet, which was also a new trading platform to the Japanese, they put integral book auctions on the Internet, and many people were not aware of that. That’s when I bought a lot and it was very affordable.

 

MT:

So eBay was a source, you mentioned Walter König … Are there more points of supply?

 grosse_hamburger_st_installation Boltanski

EK:

Yes, and of course I went looking at his exhibitions, in France, in Paris. In Berlin, on Grosse Hamburgerstrasse, a building is cleared away; one in a series of terraced houses has been demolished. On both sides of the excavation, on the facades of the houses that remained, Boltanski has put the names and occupations of the people who used to live there. That is a permanent artwork.

 

MT:

A kind of installation art in public space? I think you refer toThe Missing House (La Maison Manquante) in collaboration with Andreas Fischer?

 

EK:

Yes … and I keep up with the development of his work and ideas. He is not the only one. I do that as well with musicians, other artists and photographers. I have a top-100 people I find interesting, and who I follow. And that top-100 artists changes occasionally. At the bottom of the list people are dropping off and at the top people are being added on.

 

MT:

What’s Boltanski’s position now in that list?

 

EK:

Well, I consider his work still interesting, partly because he continues to surprise his public. I once visited an installation he made in a museum in Milan. Where he had put up a large library, all the shelves were filled with phone directories. These were all phone directories of all cities and all places around the world. Maybe not exactly right, but you got a sense that everyone, every single citizen, was represented in that library. I wasn’t familiar with that art work yet, so I went to have a look…

 

 

MT:

But what exactly in Boltanski’s work keeps you enthralled?

 

EK:

Such a work is very much about life and death … the ephemeral. Those are things that appeal to me … and also … how he physically constructs these installations. I’ve been present when he had made an installation in Grand Palais. That was fantastic! In a huge space, establishing a strong idea, making a statement. There were all compartments, filled with clothing on the floor, which stood for German concentration camps. And in the middle was a huge mountain where a crane was placed to pick up and drop clothes.

 

It is all about ideas…Boltanski has been innovative: bringing ideas from the margins into the mainstream. For example now, somewhere on an island, probably paid by some collector, in a house, similar to a kind of blood bank, or image database, he has collected heartbeats: recordings of heartbeats. At Grand Palais in Paris was a room, where you could pull a number, and wait, and then your heart rate was measured. Boltanski collects that kind of personal information. He collects authentic heartbeats of people. And that material he had used for the installation in Paris, as audio sound in the museum space. What you hear is heartbeats from different people. But at the same time he also works on a kind of database. Yes, he has strong conceptual ideas. At least, that’s what art critics call it…

 

Biography CB by Grenier

MT:

Ha-ha…Yes!

Did you read his biography: The impossible life of Christian Boltanski (2009)?

La Vie Impossible poster

EK:

No!

 

MT:

I am referring to the book by Catherine Grenier…What do you know about him, his life, on a personal level?

 

EK:

In fact…I know he has Polish ancestors …And that he is Jewish … The entire history of the Holocaust seems important to him; I understand that plays a fairly large role in his artwork.

 

MT:

Did you know that his father during the Second World War was hiding for, if I recall correctly, a year and a half under a plank floor in his home?

 

EK:

No, I’ve never read it.

 

MT:

It is impressive. Realising that Boltanski had lived at home as a child, until he was 30. He was a big kid. Everything he has done since is in a way dealing with his childhood, him as a child…

 

EK:

Indeed he has created works on that topic. For example he made different effigies of himself as a child. I did not get into his biography. I have not expressed strong interest in that. I’m interested in what he makes, for example, last year or so in Rotterdam, the installation art was also exhibited in the Venice Biennale… showing these production lines with these kids. It’s phenomenal to see. I met Boltanski once, briefly, in Arles. We don’t know each other. It was more that he was there in person.

 

MT:

I would like to recommend you reading the biography The Impossible Life of Christian Boltanski, while lying in bed, so to speak. It is very impressive.

 

EK:

Oh yeah …Yes, I have that book too…

 

MT:

It’s an incredible revelation of a person’s life. How Boltanski, almost claustrophobicly, lived at home with his parents …The immense fear to go outside into the streets.

 

EK:

Yeah…

het telefoonboek van Ben cover

MT:

He is putting his own life at the service of his work. How does the work of Boltanski ‘resonate’ in your work as an ad creator? I am especially thinking, for example, of het telefoonboek van Ben [The phone book by Ben] (1999) and the aforementioned edition, Kaddish, released in 1998.

 

EK:

No, no … I also don’t know if that’s really the case. Perhaps it is said, that he does that, but he is also someone who plays with things. The funny thing is, now in June 2014, an exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen is being shown, entitled: (Mis)Understanding Photography. And the bizarre thing is, that all those people whose work I collect, and over the years have considered interesting, and some of them I know personally, are represented: Tacita Dean, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Richard Prince, Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle … but Peter Piller and Joachim Schmid as well. It goes on and on. It’s a large group exhibition with all those people, and I’m in there myself with my work, in a fairly large space.

I curated a new installation. This is marvellous! Since I always feel like I’m an outsider, because I have other professional work as well. Although I do my commercial work with passion, and can delegate a lot, and collaborate with people, I don’t have to produce all of it myself of course …But that I get the opportunity to exhibit together with these people: Non-photographers working with photography, in a major retrospective, that in itself I find delightful!

 

MT:

Who curated the exhibition?

 

EK:

I am referring to the director of the photographic collection of Folkwang Museum Essen: Florian Ebner.

 

MT:

But how does your work and collecting photobooks relate to your life experiences?

 

EK:

Well, this is a story I have often told… when I was 11 my sister died, she was 9 then. She was run over by a car. Someone had driven through a red traffic light while she was crossing the street. That catastrophe had a big impact on me. Since then I became an only child at home. My father and mother spent a long time to cope with that loss, and incorporate the grief: 5 years. After 5 years there might have been one day of the week they did not think about it. Then slowly, it started to get slightly better. In those days I have withdrawn myself and spent a lot of time in my room, I made drawings all the time. That creative spurt was stirred up, also by the fact that I was convinced I should stay with my parents, but still have my own place. I could concentrate fully on what I liked to do …It was a kind of loophole …No, not a loophole, a distraction from what was going on. When I was 12 or 13 years old, I started making fanzines, heavy metal-like fanzines. The sequential aspect I considered exiting.

 

MT:

A fanzine? What does the term mean… a magazine, a newsprint?

 

EK:

You don’t know what a fanzine is! It’s a stapled booklet …I published an edition of 50 or more. I can still remember I made a display on the stairs in my parent’s house, and took a picture of that. The making of the actual print run, the fact that you have a private edition in circulation, was extremely interesting to me.

Useful Photography 1 cover

Again, the point is not to collect, but I gain inspiration from the items which I collect. That stems from the fact that I’m professionally working with visual memory, receiving many visual stimuli, and get excited by image processing projects. Over time I have developed all kinds of outlets for that material. Such as Useful Photography and In Almost Every Picture. These series of publications are channels for my passions.

In-almost-every-pictures_covers EK

MT:

Let’s get back to that personal experience in your youth. To what extent is this life experience reflected in your visual narratives? Or to put it differently, to what extent does your work reflect what has been handed down from your childhood? And I am particularly referring to the sudden loss of your sister at an early age.

 

EK:

Well, every now and then, I have returned to that experience. I’ve made a movie with Marlène Dumas and Ryuitchi Sakamoto. Marlène and I made a movie, independently of each other, accompanied with music composed by Sakamoto. I made a movie about my sister, based on existing film footage. I offered Marlène a hand-held Super 8 camera, and she made a film of her daughter, and that was the connection between the two film productions. Her film came out first, showing her daughter, who was then 14, lying half naked in bed. The result was a fine balance between eroticism and death. For me, that was the first time I had re-worked the subject matter of my sister. It was based on film footage which my father had shot while we played table tennis. It’s good that I’ve made that.

 

MT:

When exactly did that happen? Could you mention the date or the year?

 

EK:

In 2007 or so…? The film has been shown in many places, recently at LE BAL in Paris.

 

MT:

That is much later. I actually want to go back to…

 

EK:

Yes, yes … I cannot make that connection quite literally myself, but … I can still remember my parents, after my sister’s death, were looking for the last picture of her. That was a colour photograph, just a snapshot, which showed my mother, my sister and me sitting on a terrace in the sun. At one point they had part of the picture clipped, the section showing my sister, which a professional photographer cropped, reproduced in black and white, and blown up. I’ve always been puzzled how such a photograph, becomes a kind of monument in the living room. That picture is still there.

 

MT:

Some sort of icon?

 

EK:

Yes!

But originating from a simple snapshot, cropping the very last moment of what is recorded of my sister. I’m not saying that this is the reason why I started later looking for photographs of anonymous people, or started to crop pictures: like snapshots showing myself and some other people and then cutting them out of the picture. Perhaps there is a connection.

 

MT:

I do notice that you gather pictures of other people, which seem insignificant. Amateur photography, family albums … and these are the point of departure for you to re-write a life history. Giving a new direction to their lives. You give kind of an iconic status to these snapshots.

 

EK:

Yes, that’s what I am doing. Yes.

 

MT:

These are people we do not know at all. People who have no story to tell. But you create a new story line of their lives.

 

EK:

Yes!

 

MT:

I can understand that, with regard to that personal history you just told me. You get to see a good example of the way you bring somebody that has been photographed, a loved one, to the forefront. To someone else the same operation might seem something small and insignificant. Boltanski actually works the same way! Some portraits of anonymous people are blown up, enlarged, as a way to highlight someone’s existence, take the person out of his/her context and say: LOOK HERE! You bring it to ‘life’…

 

EK:

Yes!

 

MT:

Maybe so, in that respect that one traumatic experience, and the way your parents have dealt with the tangible recollection of your sister in a picture…for you this must have been a very formative process.

 

EK:

Sure…

 

MT:

Yes, I can imagine that this has been a key moment in your life. And it is a child-persona, if I may call it such. That experience is actually quite central, in you being young and at home. And this is also the case with Boltanski; something once personal becomes collective data. Even his own name is presented in quotation marks! For years it was the one central theme in his work and books: a child-persona ‘CB’, in which biographical facts and found histories intersect and mix. I see that reflected in your way of working…

 

EK:

Well look, in the series In Almost Every Picture, however, I am looking for a particular personal experience. Unravelling the story that’s inside. I think in his [Boltanski] case, it’s different; the way he works with photography is more conceptual. Like recording all the possessions of a single person. Boltanski is investigating things, delving into personal matters and presenting them as a part of a whole. At one point, he has made light boxes showing faces lit up from behind, which were hanging on the wall. That’s more of a decorative artwork, in order to sell in a gallery. I consider that… Well, for me his conceptual work is most intriguing.

 

MT:

Yes. Would you please mention certain key works? The ones you consider impressive?

 

EK:

Well, Kaddish for example, and…

 

MT:

Why?

 

EK:

That book contains over a thousand pages and Boltanski is telling the history of the Holocaust through photography, as I explained earlier. He builds a history with photographs only, without using any texts. Some are authentic images, historical photographs, and many others are not.

spread het telefoonboek van Ben EK

MT:

I look at het telefoonboek van Ben [The Phone Book of Ben], released in 1999 and, again, Kaddish which was published in 1998. Has the latter been a source of inspiration?

boltanski-kaddish spread 2

EK:

No, no …That book was produced, simply because of the fact that a provider of mobile communications, in principle, doesn’t need any phone directory, that’s exactly why we made one. You see: made in order to make things a bit awkward.

 

MT:

In terms of content was the association with the phone directories by Boltanski was not there?

 

EK:

No, no…Certainly not in terms of content, No.

 Menschlich spread 1

MT:

Menschlich (1994) is actually a kind of phone directory, too. The publication is comparable to Kaddish.

 

Reprint of Lessons of Darkness (until 1987), 1988. “Menschlich” is Christian Boltanski’s massive 1994 publication (rather like a small telephone directory) that collects in printed form the pre-existing photographically based series of works ‘Le College d’Hulst’, ‘L’Album famille D.’, ‘Le Club Mickey’, ‘La plage de Bercy’, ‘Les Enfants de Dijon’, ‘Detective’, ‘Le Lycee Chases’, ‘La Fete du Pourim’, ‘El Caso’, ‘Le Suisses Morts’, ‘La famille de Berlin’, ‘Grosse Hamburger Strasse’, ‘Sans Soucis’, ‘Ces enfants recherchent leurs parents’, ‘Les Regards’, ‘Avant – Maintenant’. From: Abebooks bookseller’s description.

 

EK:

Menschlich is a … part of Kaddish. The section is literally ‘pulled out’, and implemented differently.

 

MT:

Yes, one of the chapters, you could say.

 

EK:

Yes, exactly!

Ost:West Boltanski cover Ost

MT:

That child-persona I find very alluring in Boltanski’s oeuvre. And it is common in his books. For example in a booklet on youth-culture in East and West Germany: Ost/West.

boltanski-schenkung Katalog cover

EK:

Yes, that is a nice booklet. And where East and West meet, folding open in the middle of the book, is a grey page. That page is symbolic of the Berlin Wall as it used to be there… Then there’s another book that is called Bilder [Schenkung Christian Boltanksi: Bilder, Objekte, Dokumenten aus der Siebziger Jahre] that is practically an image catalogue… not really from a catalogue, but images as they are supposed to be: model photographs. Not literally, of course, in terms of a fashion models…

 

MT:

Exemplary pictures, you mean?

 

EK:

Yes. 

10 portraits photographiques de CB 1946-1964 cover

MT:

In my opinion, this is a very early publication: In 10 portraits photographiques de CB 1946-1964 different children are depicted suggesting ‘CB’ at different ages. All photographs happen to have been shot on one and the same day. That little booklet indicates that the figure ‘Christian Boltanski’ is really only a collective reality; he does not exist as an individual. Do you have that booklet?

10 portraits photographiques de christian boltanski 1946-1964 spread

EK:

Yes, these are different children indeed. He plays with that identity issue. Yeah…I have that booklet, too.

 

MT:

Did you ever hint at this idea of self-portraiture, your own childhood reflected in someone else’s portraits? Did you ever want to do such a thing? Or does it not work like that?

 

EK:

Again, it doesn’t work that way… For me it’s a kind of acquiring knowledge through study. All those projects, all those books. And you wonder about them; you charge yourself, so to speak. And then, if you try to do things yourself, to a certain extent you try, in a way, to be unique.

 

MT:

It supplies you with information, feeds you with new ideas.

 

EK:

Yes! It all comes together, because I am interested in graphic design, editing, and printing matters.

 

MT:

I would like your opinion about a quote from Boltanski: “photography doesn’t prove anything”. Is that the case?

 

EK:

Yes, he says that because it coincides with what he is doing … In Kaddish, as just discussed: Any photograph of a child he makes a bit out of focus, suddenly becomes a victim. I also once noticed a book, but I don’t think Boltanski compiled it… maybe it doesn’t even exist… I refer to a book with two portraits side by side; on every two-page spread are two portraits and one of the persons depicted is a perpetrator, the other a victim of the same case. But you never know who who is. That’s an interesting given in relation to the question that you pose: ‘photography proves nothing’.

 

MT:

It’s about interpretation…

 

EK:

 Yes.

MT:

That imagined self-biography has become the premise of Boltanski’s work. I find this highly interesting: how Boltanski deals with truth. He says: “I have found so many false memories, that were considered collective memory” … So what does it mean tangible reality?

 

EK:

Things that I am working on, regarding these photo albums …The family album is simply a form of propaganda. In case a man or a woman of a young family takes a picture while they are on a holiday, then everything should be perfect: everyone is laughing, beautiful sunshine, the couple is standing close together. All is well. Family albums are created to promote a particular family. In terms of: Look…! We are doing all right.

 

MT:

A perfectly polished life…

 

EK:

Yes, that perhaps is what he is aiming at with the notion ‘false memories’, because it is standard in family photography. Though it is referring to some extent to a collective memory.

 

MT:

Which over time is distorted in our memory.

 

EK:

Yes, but you also have to consider a particular framing. Probably the most interesting moment took place outside that photo frame. And that is what you DO remember of that particular moment in time.

 

MT:

But tell me, why are you, being yourself a private collector of amateur photography and photo albums, so much interested in the photographic memories of other people?

 

EK:

There are a number of reasons: one thing I find interesting is the typology you discover in this genre. In case you collect all albums of a specific family, the typology is the following: two people meet each other in the first album, in which the man photographs his girlfriend up close. They are totally in love with each other. The second album is a wedding album. The third is made at the time the first child is born. The fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh album is a great mix of everything. What you see is chaos: the birth of a second and third child, vacations, children’s parties. That sort of thing… The last album will be created when the children have left home. And both parents go on a holiday with each other again. In a way, it is a kind of remake of the first album.

 

Also the rituals and customs that people have, I find interesting. As well as the boring routine in such an album: pages with pictures of mountains that are totally non-descript. Which just indicate: look there is a mountain! I’m interested in errors, for they are amateur photographers of course. These people are just enthusiasts.

 

MT:

A bit clumsy, in a sense…?

 

EK:

Yes, yes… and there is great beauty unfolding in that innocence. This genre of photography is an inexhaustible resource, which makes you recognise new things over and over again.

 

MT:

Boltanski once remarked on this issue, and this may explain why Boltanski liked to visit for example the Musée de l’Homme where insignificant utilitarian objects, commodities, are shown to the public. What he saw there were e.g. kitchen knives, used by ordinary people to cut with, or a dinner plate used to eat from. In his words: “I want to express simple ideas, from the point of view of tradition and history”. That’s basically what he’s doing. Is that what you pursue in making books, and in the way you collect books?

 

EK:

What counts for me is that I allow people to look at already existing material, which they considered very common and unobtrusive. At the moment these images are placed in a different context, you make people marvel at them again. Along the lines of: “I have never seen it this way”. It is a renewed look at simple snapshots and discovering the story in there. That’s basically what I do. I urge people to watch the story, compiled in an exhibition or a book. Extracted from its original context, making you look again and to assess the vernacular differently.

 

MT:

In a sense that is what Boltanski does, too. In 1973 he made a 16mm film entitled: l’Appartement de la Rue de Vaugirard in which he introduces for the first time a narration: a completely random story line. I see a parallel approach to your way of working. You also re-construct a story line that did not exist originally, for example, in a family album you have purchased. You pull out the material and create a new plot.

 

EK:

Sometimes a story line is already there, but I twist things, distort and emphasize them.

 

MT:

And now we are discussing ‘found inventories’, Boltanski is dealing with that too. He has released several books on this topic. It’s a very dry concept: a typology of things as found in situ…I link that to what you do with found material. To which extent is your series of magazines Useful Photography an ‘inventory’?

 

EK:

Yes, yes …Such a publication of Boltanski is a kind of ‘hatch’, a channel to show things. In Useful Photography we present images that people are dealing and working with everyday. In fact we are not aware of them anymore. We consume those images daily. By placing them together in a magazine you literally take them out of the initial context, that works. The images are created for a utilitarian purpose and once you pull them out there, and cluster them, or make them clash with other images published in there as well. You urge people to look again at to the beauty of it and be amazed. The magazine Useful Photography is at the same time a kind of ode to the creators of that type of photography. In general you will not encounter this kind of material because you just will not notice it. But if you strip it of its environment then it stands out.

 

MT:

As in Usefull Photography volume 1: an anonymous photographer makes pictures of coffins with pin-up-like ladies on top of the phallic shaped caskets, for some product catalogue, I presume?

 

EK:

Yes, the series was photographed for a calendar, commissioned by an Italian company that makes coffins. The photographer plays with the myth that once you’re in heaven that there are all naked women appearing on your coffin! Then a commercial photographer made pictures of that subject.

 

Such a topic is subject to change. We now live in an image-Renaissance …A moment in time which is quite unique. That’s not comparable to, let’s say, 15 years ago. It almost reaches a high point…

 

MT:

Why a high point, why now?

 

EK:

The amount of images we deal with every day …Say you would place a person of a 100… no 80 years ago in this timeframe, he would die within the hour, in a manner of speaking! Because he should have to handle so much imagery, and so much information, that he would not survive. I once read somewhere that we now see more images before lunch then would be seen by someone in the 19th century during his enrite life. Today we live in a time in which you can watch continuously, associate, copy, and give new meaning to images.

 

MT 

Is this another way of dealing with visual language?

 

EK:

Yes, and now that plays a major role in the lives of young people, both artists and amateurs, who are dealing so much easier with pictures. If 20 years ago a person edited some pictures and associated with them, he was immediately ranked an artist, but now a lot of people do that kind of thing. Just like writing a blog, devoted to a particular subject is also a kind of exhibition, right? Only it is not framed, but basically it is framed!

 

MT:

And it’s all cross-border in nature, such as civic journalism. Any amateur photographer can make the 8-o’clock news.

 

EK:

Yes! You know the phenomenon that someone takes a picture of a few people, sometime in the past, and then much later again takes a picture of the same people. In each country of the world you may find someone that works exactly in the same way. There is a large amount of copying behaviour in art. That in itself is not at all problematic; it’s not plagiarism. There are people who do that very well and are extremely original. Such strategies become a global phenomenon, which happens very quickly.

 

MT:

Yes, especially the latter: a wave motion of a new phenomenon. May I once more make a comparison with Boltanski? Boltanski makes a kind of photographic readymade, as in the key work Fotoalbum der Familie D. (1972) in which he constructs by means of authentic family photographs a fictional history. Isn’t that what you are doing? You seem to be no longer drawing the line between fact and fiction in the series In Almost Every Picture?

Good Luck cover

EK:

Yes. I once made a book, that’s called Good Luck, the essay for the Dutch Book Week in 2011. They asked me if I wanted to do an essay, departing from photographic images. My idea was the following: I had an envelope with 50 pictures in it, of a family that in a strange way collected all kinds of dolls at home. They were little people and who apparently had no children. The spouse of the woman was relatively small and had a twin brother and frequently she stood next to him on a photograph. There was mystery involved.

The visual narrative plays in Northern France, in the 1950s. Colour photography was just on the market. On several pictures a black man appears. The people who are depicted have meanwhile deceased. To me, it was interesting to treat that story as a fiction and give the protagonists a new life. A novel writer, Christine Otten, has created a fictional story. These kind of mixed modes and hybrids I find fascinating. In this case you have a photo booklet with text in it, or, if you wish, a textbook with lots of pictures in it. Interestingly, such a pretty complicated edition of 50,000 copies was sold out in three weeks. And that such a subject reaches a mainstream public.

 

Constantly associating with existing images is what he [Boltanski] does as well, and thus ventilating his ideas. I wonder sometimes about the fact that so many people find this interesting …As in the series In Almost Every Picture. That people are considering found photographs authentic again. Just like today you can buy a lot of vinyl. The tactile aspect of an old photograph, an existing image, affected by time…

 

I myself have been taking Polaroid pictures for a long time. Every now and then I look back at them, and take some pictures out. But at the moment I have taken the Polaroids, I haven’t used them at all. It never occurred to me as: This is a nice idea; this I want to photograph. That works too fast for me, the photograph is just there then…I have no affinity with that.

 

MT:

What you do seems always linked to the past, to a history.

 

EK:

Yes, although, it does not apply to a project like ‘24-hour Flickr’ … Or maybe it does. It is the history of the day before.

Le Lycee Chases cover

MT:

To finalize our conversation, may I mention a number of artists’ books by Boltanski? I would like you to indicate if they are part of your collection and invite you to briefly comment on the content. What I find interesting is that Boltanski highlights anonymous people, individuals, such as students at a Gymnasium in Vienna. These pupils were killed in the 1930s and otherwise unknown. And the only thing there is, is the class portrait when they were 17. That’s all we know.  is the title of the book. I will mention a few more titles. Please tell me briefly what those publications stimulate in you.

 

Le Lycee Chases 1987 [“That in 1931 there has been a Gymnasium in Vienna was all we know. Photography is the only document – perhaps evidence, about the fate of these students …In any case, photography poses pressing questions about our prejudices and our conscience”, Christian Boltanski].

 

EK:

Yes, I am familiar with the book. Yes, I have it in my collection. What fascinates me, in this case, is the history of these schoolgirls and schoolboys, and that Boltanski makes an artist’s book based on a single image. And then again he created multiple images starting from that one image. That is interesting.

 

MT:

Menschlich is a massive publication. Several series are reoccurring in this compilation, such as: ‘Le Club Mickey’, ‘Les enfants de Dyon’, ‘Le Lycée Chases’ is also reappearing. ‘El Caso’ is in there, ‘Les Suisses Morts’… What do you think if I say ‘Menschlich’? And is the book also included in your collection?

 

EK:

Yes, yes … of course. The title itself says a great deal. Actually, he poses a question. What is ‘human’ and what is not? I think he continuously raises concerns about social issues within his work.

 

As I indicated earlier regarding that phone directory …its implementation…Boltanski picks up a phone directory, pastes a sticker with his own name on the front cover, and then it suddenly turns into an artist’s book, because he’s added an errata to it…a rectification: a folded A3 sized sheet of paper, with names on it. That is also ‘Menschlich’. The moment a new phone directory is released, and you leave it for six months in your closet, then it is no longer representative. His work is all about life and death; the ephemeral of humanity.

Ost West spread

MT:

And then Ost/West, we have mentioned it earlier, contains reproductions of relics of youth-culture in Berlin.

 

Ost/West (1998) Relics of youth-culture in Ost/West Berlin in the 1970s

 

EK:

You will find no people depicted in there. The bizarre thing is, in that booklet, that actually the human presence is made very tangible. What he has done is select other stuff than the calibrated effigies of ‘East’ and ‘West’. This is how he made an attempt to incorporate the citizens of Berlin. That makes it a strong idea.

Scratch spreadscratch cover

MT:

Let’s focus on another booklet, similar in size and sobriety, called Scratch. Have you scratched and looked? What makes these pictures so ‘forbidden’, once you have brought them to the foreground?

 

Scratch (2002) This thin, stiff artist’s book contains ten duotone illustrations of purportedly disturbing and forbidden images, but one wouldn’t know since each page has been completely covered with a layer of silver material that must be scratched off to reveal the photograph beneath. Presented in a way that evokes a family photograph album, the book has interleaving sheets between each page spread. From: Photo-Eye book description.

 

EK:

I do not know how he has come across these pictures. They are pornographic pictures. Also in this case he plays with the medium photobook. The fact that you buy an artist’s book and as soon as you open it, there’s nothing to see, except when you scratch the silver, but if you do, the book is partly damaged. Just imagine, it would be great if Boltanski would print all his books on ink that is impermanent. After ten years, they’re all gone. Then you have his collection of books, but on the pages is no ink; everything is gone!

 

boltanski les suisses morts lausanne

MT:

Interesting idea! In Les Suisses Morts are pictures of obituaries cut-outs from Swiss newspapers. What I found funny and cynical at the same time is that he chose Swiss people because they had no historical reason to die in World War II. In general the brutality of death is pivotal in his oeuvre.

 SONY DSC

EK:

Yes, yes…

 

MT:

Les Suisses Morts is similar to Le Lycee Chases. Would you like to comment on that publication? And may I ask, do you have El Caso? A remarkably small first edition of 80 copies. Do you have the version with a large ring binder?

 

El Caso 1988. Ring bound booklet, 5x7cm with a Perspex cover, in edition of 80 ex. containing 17 images. “This small artist’s book was produced by Boltanski for the deluxe issue of Parkett magazine No. 22. Themes central to Boltanski’s oeuvre find devastating expression in this tiny piece of pocket pornography containing images of brutal murder re-photographed by the artist from the Spanish detective magazine El Caso”. From: Abebooks bookseller’s description.

 

EK:

Yes! The imagery is derived from such a Mexican newspaper focussing on disasters. He just clipped them out of a newspaper. Gruesome pictures his choice of victims and dead people.

 

MT:

Mutilated bodies, I read somewhere that these pictures came from a Spanish detective magazine.

 

EK:

Yes! Well, Spanish… In Mexico you have them, too.

 

MT:

At what point did you buy El Caso?

 

EK:

Just let me think … 10, 15 years ago?

 

MT:

How much did this rare book cost then?

 

EK:

I don’t know…Ha-ha.

frau aus Ludwigshafen CB cover

cover Boltanski Christian_Inventaire des objects ayant appartenu a une femme de Bois-Colombes

CB inventaris Oxford spread

MT:

Another early publication is Inventar des objets appartenu a une femme de Bois Colombes (1974) and similar titles related to ‘inventories’ of people’s homes and lives: Inventar der Objekte, die einer Frau aus Ludwigfhafen gehört haben (2000) and Inventory of the objects belonging to an inhabitant of Oxford introduced by a preface and folllowed by some answers to my proposal (1973). Would you please elaborate on these publications? He has made several of this kind of books.

autobiography sol lewitt spread 1

EK:

During that period there were more artists who covered the same sort of topics. Like Feldmann, … and Sol Lewitt. The latter has released a book [Autobiography, 1980] in which he documented all objects and furniture in his own house. Very beautiful.

 

 Sol Lewitt autobiography spread 2

MT:

I recently happened to have held it in my hands, at Johan Deumens Gallery. Yes, it’s a diary of his own home. Lewitt walks through his entire house with a camera and records all objects: a dry documentation it is of books, jackets, shoes, kitchenware, house plants.

Specific Object

EK:

This probably was something in the air during that period, like All the Clothes of a Woman /Alle Kleider einer Frau by Hans Peter Feldmann for example. And afterwards, it’s also still very often done of course.

 

MT:

Boltanski started this artist’s strategy? 1972 is pretty early…He was the first to publish an inventory in photographs in book form?

 

EK:

I think so…yes.

sans souci boltanski cover

sans souci album page

MT:

And finally: Sans Souci?

 

Sans Souci “In this book, found snapshots of several Nazi families have been reproduced. Although the represented people did not know each other, the book presents itself as a traditional photo album of one family”. From: E. Van Alphen, ‘Nazism in Family Albums: Christian Boltanski’s Sans Souci’, p.32.

sams souci 2 album CB

EK:

That’s a family album: a facsimile of a family album. And that’s it. It’s an album, which you hold in your hands, containing photo-pages interleaved with spiders-rag papers, and you find out yourself what the story is about.

box reconstitution CB

MT:

Allright… I would like to mention another book: Reconstitution (1990) Content wise, I don’t get it: Is it a kind of box, a kind of catalogue?

 

Reconstitution (1990)

This box-catalogue consists of the following content:

Christian Boltanski, Reconstitution, 1990

Christian Boltanski, Biography and Bibliography

Christian Boltanski, an interview by Georgia Marsh

Reconstitution de gestes effectués par Christian Boltanski, entre 1948 et 1954

10 portraits photographiques de Christian Boltanski, 1946-1964

Recherche et présentation de tout ce qui reste de mon enfance, 1969

Inventaire des objets ayant appartenu à une femme de Bois-Colombes, 1974

Saynetes Comiques, 1975

2 Letters

Lettre de demande d’aide, 1970

Lettre aux conservateurs de musée proposant le projet de Inventaires, 1973

Dispersion à l’amiable

Christian Boltanski a l’honneur de vous faire ses offres de service

2 photos

Christian Boltanski à 5 ans 3 mois de distance

Christian Boltanski et ses frères

3 Colour postcards

Poster, 1974

Image modèle (La régate), 1975

Composition Décorative, 1976

Colour poster

L’Ange d’alliance, 1986, photo by André Morin.

boltanski_reconstitution inhoud 

EK:

Yes, then the project was also exhibited at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, as well as at White Chapel Gallery in London. Reconstitution is a collection of his letters, postcards, booklets and posters. One single box is containing everything. Some 15 or 20 different publications are put together in the box. He has made more of this type of multiples; for example another box is called Livre. Boltanksi has a high level of production, and as soon as he has an exhibition coming up, he assembles all those publications in a new publication form: a box. Or he simply makes a reprint of an existing publication.

 

MT:

Yes, everything constantly revives, isn’t it? Things keep popping up; a new life is donated to them. He also seems to be playing with that aspect.

 

EK:

Yes…yes!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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