In veneration of lost souls: Christian Boltanski’s Chance

Christian Boltanski,  Chance , installation view, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2014. Photo: Pedro de Almeida.

Christian Boltanski, Chance, installation view, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2014. Photo: Pedro de Almeida.

‘Chance, my dear, is the sovereign deity in child-bearing,’ wrote Honoré de Balzac in Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées (‘Letters of Two Brides’), an epistolary novel serialised in 1841 in La Presse, the first newspaper title of the industrialised press era in France. In dovetailing the lives of two childhood friends of similar social background as they make their way in the world following their departure from a convent—one pragmatically accepting a petit-bourgeois provincial existence as a mother of three, the other pursuing romantic self-indulgence resulting in childlessness, despair and early death by consumption—Balzac draws a dual portrait of the private contestations of women who recognise that their destinies are influenced by their fertility. More than just a parable for proto-feminist struggle in a society more than a century away from real change for women, Balzac’s story achieves greater rather than diminished significance when taken as one episode of his vast La comédie humaine, a matchless literary achievement in its chronicling of the almost infinite gradations of ideological import that the beginning of European modernity had on individual consciousness.

If Balzac and his brides seem so distant from us in the twenty-first century it is because the natural arrogance of every historical age presupposes the validity of its own reasoning of cause and effect. One hypothesis of ‘how the world works’—be it ideological or theological—is deemed historically inevitable over another depending on the conviction of the enactment of its edicts which are not unrelated to material circumstance. It’s no coincidence that Balzac’s expression of the paradoxical conjunction of godless probability with divine governance in the conception of human life occurred at a time when the logic of capitalism was at its most nascent. Lest this seem akin to confessing lock-step adherence to the inevitability of western philosophical suppositions since Nietzsche’s ‘death of God,' I nominate the simplest and most common of retorts: Insha’Allah.

Emerging in Paris as a preternaturally gifted young artist in the early 1960s, Christian Boltanksi has spent the past half-century as the most ecclesiastical of non-believers, erecting shrines in veneration of lost souls. His life’s work is a ghost-written ledger of Balzac’s La comédie humaine, with phantoms replacing characters and the spectre of the unknowable in place of plot. Presented at Carriageworks as part of Sydney Festival, Chance was a new iteration of a major installation originally commissioned by the Institut Français for the French Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Taken as the sum of its parts, Chance is first and foremost a machine of theological study whose operating manual is written by a heretic.

Wheel of Fortune, the central cog in the machine, is a monumental scaffold structure that reached over eight metres high to the iron girders holding the roof over this former rail yard from the steam-powered era. It whirred softly as a giant ream of tightly cropped photographs of infant faces traveled along its length like a newspaper printing press or the inside of a motion picture camera. The computer driving this contraption stopped the process at random intervals, with a bell ringing and an individual face projected on a screen. Almost all of the babies—drawn from Polish newspaper birth announcements—had their eyes closed, eerily inviting comparisons to the nineteenth-century custom of post-mortem photography, a vernacular we no longer dare speak since the clinical elimination of sentiment from science.

Accompanying this Wheel of Fortune were two interrelated works that fell short of the singular power of the larger work due to their uninspired simplicity. Be New presented two wall-mounted screens on which were displayed rapidly changing strips of photographs of human faces cut into three horizontal parts that had all the allure of clumsy collage. If the artist’s intention was to remind us that we are all a composite of those who have preceded us then the actual physiognomic abstraction that sprang up when a button was pressed to freeze the animation in random order was disingenuous on two counts. First, addition is not the same as synthesis, neither in genetics nor history. Second, not for nothing does Boltanski specifically use the faces of 60 Polish babies and 52 dead Swiss only to take shelter in history’s shadow, lest the question of the consequences of being Polish or Swiss in the twentieth-century, from which these source photographs emerge, be explicitly addressed. Moreover, it was difficult not to see Last News From Humans—two enormous digital counters on scaffold towers that bookended the installation and recorded in real time the aggregate births and deaths around the world—as a faulty stop watch that tracked nothing so much as an invented race against time. At the precise moment of my visit Boltanski’s tally signalled that 87,363 people had died that day and 201,487 had been born. Such numerical abstractions, like the constant ebb and flow of stock market numbers, don’t mean much to an individual who is, after all, the majority shareholder in only one number that truly matters. You don’t have to be a soulless misanthrope to accept that one death is a tragedy, one million a statistic—a ruthless epigram commonly though dubiously attributed to Joseph Stalin because it’s easier to pin this on a mass murderer rather than confront the historical evidence of humanity’s potential for uncomfortable affinity with its moral dialectic.

So, who cares for the Polish babies? Who marks the miracle of the birth of just one, the tragedy of the death of just one? Well, at very least mothers do. ‘A mother who is really a mother is never free’ is another observation of Balzac’s, which is to say that when women become mothers they are morally bound to the responsibility of two lives—at least for as long as they choose to observe the gendered legitimacy of this life sentence. While nowhere implicit in Boltanski’s artistic endeavor, I couldn’t help but see Chance as an inadvertent monument to motherhood. All those babies are borne of mothers and, yes, fathers of course have something to do with it too, but the world has yet to witness the birth of a child lacking the bodily sustenance and shelter of their mother (biological or surrogate) and thus shall it continue until the horror of genetically modified test-tube babies becomes reality. But what are the chances of that?

Christian Boltanski: Chance, Carriageworks, Sydney, 9 January – 23 March 2014.

Published in Art Monthly Australia, no. 268, April 2014, pp. 18-21.

© Pedro de Almeida 2014.