Installation view of Christian Boltanski’s Chance (2011– ), a meditation on life and death which was on view at Carriageworks, Sydney, earlier this year. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific

The artist gazes through the 16-ton steel scaffolding structure through which 400 baby photographs churn. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

Apr 09 2014

Taking Chances: Christian Boltanski at Carriageworks

by Michael Young

Installations seem to grow ever more bloated in size in direct correlation to the thinness of a work’s conceptual framework. Paris-based artist Christian Boltanski’s Chance (2011– ) which was installed at Sydney’s Carriageworks in an exhibition of the same name up until March as part of this year’s Sydney Festival, is no exception. Filling the length of the inner-city art space’s foyer, 16 tons of special scaffolding ran a continuous loop of 400 baby photographs, culled from the birth announcements of Polish newspapers, printed on reams of paper reminiscent of a newspaper printing press. Occasionally a bell sounded and the whole process would grind to a temporary halt, only to start again with a second sounding.

Boltanski is an international art star whose credentials are sound. Chance was first shown in the France Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale to critical acclaim and has since traveled to Holland and Brazil. Reconfigured for Sydney, the “baby factory” is a chilling metaphor for death, memory, life and birth, themes that continue to occupy the artist.

Boltanski is “always making the same piece,” as the artist remarked, possibly somewhat disingenuously, to ArtAsiaPacific at his opening in January. Perhaps a more accurate way to put it is simply is that he continues to refine a personal metaphor for life. Growing up in the decades after World War I, Boltanski is interested in the role that chance has played in the grand narratives of the 20th century.

In its Sydney iteration, “Chance” comprised three pieces, all exploring Boltanski’s singular notion that every birth, every death, is not predetermined by divine intervention, but is simply what it is at any given moment. “If my parents had made love just a few seconds later, then another completely different baby would have been born. I would not be here,” he says.

It is this existential proposition that has sustained Boltanski for years. For him, life is determined by randomness, a mysterious process best explored in Be New which mimics, in high-tech fashion, the ubiquitous slot-machines common in casinos. Cut-up photographs of eyes, mouths and noses—generated from photographs from Boltanski’s collection of 20,000 death announcements—flash endlessly on a screen until the visitor presses a button and the configuration stops, revealing a face of mismatched facial components. Some of the results are funny, others grotesque.

The final leg of the work, Last News From Humans is made from giant green and red digital counters: green for babies, red for deaths. If Boltanski’s numbers are accurate, then globally, births on an average day outnumber deaths by an alarming 200,000, a fact that is chilling for future generations.

As a spectacle, “Chance” succeeds through its sheer immensity and conceptual grandiosity. Perhaps this is enough for a festival piece. But beyond an assertion of life’s basic facts—we are born, we live and we die— there is a disturbing sense that not much else lies beneath the work’s surface. Ultimately, what the artist says may be the most truthful statement there is out there: he is indeed always making the same piece.

Christian Boltanski’s “Chance” was on view at Carriageworks from January 9–March 23, 2014.

Michael Young is contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific.