Scholars' Association News
Issue 30
May 2014

02/04


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Eyes, a Christian Boltanski exhibition
By Christina Papageorgiou

Last year the Onassis Cultural Centre hosted the “Eyes” exhibition by Christian Boltanski, one of the most influential modern European artists. A highly meaningful and significant initiative of the Onassis Cultural Centre, it gave the Greek audience the chance to become acquainted with the artist’s work.

On 2 December 2013, the Scholars’ Association invited its members to a riveting event: a special tour to the exhibition by Marilena Karra, curator of the exhibition and Artistic Director of Visual Arts at the Onassis Cultural Centre. Mrs. Karra lead us on an informative and enlightening journey through Christian Boltanski’s work and thinking, revealing details about the artist’s work and life so far. Christian Boltanski uses the theme of memory in a rather unique way, by creating what one might call ‘archives’. In his exhibition in Greece, his installation consisted of eyes drawn from ID photographs and sounds from Athenian heartbeats. The first thing visitors encountered in the lobby was a huge digital counter. As curator Marilena Karra explained, this device was a heartbeat counter counting the artist’s heartbeats. It reminded me of the work of another artist, Tatsuo Miyajima, from Japan who has been working with digital counters recording the passage of time since the 1980s. I quickly tried to identify the connection between the two artists.

The first thing visitors encountered in the lobby was a huge digital counter. As curator Marilena Karra explained, this device was a heartbeat counter counting the artist’s heartbeats. It reminded me of the work of another artist, Tatsuo Miyajima, from Japan who has been working with digital counters recording the passage of time since the 1980s. I quickly tried to identify the connection between the two artists.

Miyajima’s work is poetic and philosophical at one and the same time. His counters have no 0 (zero). The Japanese artist is a Buddhist and the concept of zero, as perceived in the West, doesn’t form part of Buddhist philosophy nor is it to be found in the Japanese language. For Miyajima, time runs continuously and once it reaches zero it just stops emitting a signal. During this infinitesimal moment, the digital counter dims locally only to resume running in infinite time (it can either run backwards or forwards, depending on how it has been set by the artist).

Boltanski retains zero in his counters, all of which move forward. In his conception of time there is no countdown. Besides the large digital counter in the lobby, there were also another 12 at the end of the exhibition which counted the heartbeats of volunteers from the Onassis Cultural Centre. Boltanski’s counters keep counting without pausing or stopping, measuring the inexorable race towards death, the zero moment. The artist has requested that all counters be reset at the moment of his death. The image of the 1 and the 12 counters brought to mind more allusions to mythological and religious motifs.

The lighting in the room was subtle. The only light used in the lobby was the light emitted by the digital counter while the main exhibition space was lit by incandescent light bulbs.

Eyes, printed on huge sheets of fabric hung on wires delineated the exhibition space; their shape and size creating a clear grid. The entire picture triggered successive and multiple associations in one’s mind. For the audience to move around the exhibition, they had to move the work and walk through what resembled a huge laundry room of eyes that overwhelmed the space. This picture reminded me of images from the works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and in particular The Gates. In this case as well, the context of the works was different, as Christo and Jeanne-Claude usually work in public spaces and interact with the natural landscape.

The exhibition featured one additional part that was optional for the public. The “heart archive” room where the heartbeats of Athenians were gathered in order to be included in and expand Boltanski’s archive collection, which is permanently installed on the island of Teshima, Japan.

The “gathering process” took place in an office space at the Onassis Cultural Centre, that strongly reminded one of a waiting room in a doctor’s surgery. This process allowed the audience to expand their role and become more than mere viewers; to actually become part of the work. Every volunteer made their own personal contribution to the creation of a different work, in a different place, at a different time. All of us who were there also became part of another performance, giving the impression of waiting or conveying information about the action taking place in the room next door.

The work overall is an installation. Boltanski deals with the concept of ‘archive’ in order to build an ephemeral work for Greece. From his perspective, he is reversing our gaze back onto the work. He offers a novel perspective that triggers a host of questions and reactions, while at the same time providing multiple and different ways of viewing things.

(Christina Papageorgiou is an architect and sculptor.)


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