No Man’s Land, the new installation by the French artist Christian Boltanski, which occupies the 55,000 square feet of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory, centers around a ceaselessly altering 30-ton mountain of cast-off clothing. A giant red claw picks up the clothes and drops them again in a monotonous symbol of futility. The piece goes beyond pathos. Photographs can demonstrate what it looks like, but not how it sounds, a deep ocean-pounding of many hugely amplified human heartbeats. I spoke with the 65-year-old artist about his view of art and the questions that have shaped his life.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of “No Man’s Land”
Anthony Haden-Guest: You once said that if one tells stories too often they become like fiction.
Christian Boltanski: Yes. Absolutely. That is the reason politicians are so bad. They tell always the same story. And they don’t believe it. There is this Irish story. This man goes around all the pubs saying “I killed my son!” And there’s another who goes around and says “I killed my father!” Everybody gives them drinks. “You killed your father? You killed your son?” The job of each of them is to tell this story. And they meet in the middle! “I killed my father! I killed my son!”
You know, in the States people are so strange, because they always want to have the truth. I am a liar. And I think it is very important to be a liar. A long time ago I made a work I said was 220 photos of dead Swiss. But one photo was of a Swiss who was not dead yet. It was only a question of time. So at the beginning it was a lie. But after some years it was the truth.
Haden-Guest: There are visible erasures in your book of interviews. You erased a whole section about Marcel Duchamp.
Boltanski: I think that I said that I don’t like Duchamp. But that is totally stupid because I know that Duchamp is a very important man. In conversation I can say, “Oh, Duchamp is the son of a lawyer, he’s so clever, and so perfect, and so French.” And I don’t like it! You can say it on the radio because you have the voice and the intonation, but that is totally different in print. That is why I refused to read this book made from my interviews before it was printed. If I read it I shall also change it. Because when you read your interview you always want to say something which is not dangerous, something which is a little clever—and that is awful. I made a lot of interviews with alcohol. In Scotland I made a very good interview drinking a bottle of whiskey with the critic.
Haden-Guest: And getting a bit drunk?
Boltanski: Totally drunk! And the end of the interview was very good. If I am drunk I am going to tell the truth, or something different. After that, I try an interview with vodka. But the interview was not good at all, because the critic was really totally drunk. He was too drunk.
Haden-Guest: Is this true?
Boltanski: Totally true! [Explosion of mirth.]
Haden-Guest: You have said that art always remains the same.
Boltanski: Yes. I have had very few ideas in my life. And I think an artist must not have too many ideas. If you work in fashion design you must have a lot of ideas. If you are an artist you must repeat and repeat. But when you become older you are going to repeat in a different way. I think most artists have some kind of problem in the beginning. And we try to speak about those problems. We can do these in different ways but they are the same problems. I had one type of question when I was very young. I had another type of question when I lost my parents. And I also had another type of question becoming older. But if I had [only] three types of questions in my life that is enough. That’s a lot.
Haden-Guest: Your questions remain. But the art world has changed?
Boltanski: When I began to work what was important was the critics and the curators. Now you have the auction houses and the rich people. I think that is something sad. Before what was important was to have a beautiful article in The Times. Now what is important is to have a rich man say I love you. I was very happy for the crash. I thought it would be cleaner. I hoped that a lot of galleries were going to close. But in fact they did not close. It hasn’t changed.
Haden-Guest: What are the three questions you’ve had in your life?
Boltanski: When I realized that my childhood was finished I can remember exactly the time, it was in Cannes with my parents. And I was very sad that all of this was going to disappear. After, when my parents died I realized that, even at my age, it was possible to die tomorrow. And you see all your friends who are dying around you. Why are they dying and not me? And now the work is more or less about that. There is a beautiful story that when Pollock died there was a meeting. Somebody said “Pollock is not dead! His art is with us!” And a friend of Pollock who was drunk said “He is dead! I saw him in the coffin!” We can preserve nothing.
I love life and also I know that I’m going to die. My new work is an island with a library of heartbeats. I am going to make this project in Japan. I collect heartbeats. But this island is going to be an island of dead people in a few years. And if somebody goes there he is not going to see the presence of the person. He is going to see the absence of the person. Each time you attempt to preserve something, you fail. But I think that’s the beauty, to fail.
Anthony Haden-Guest is the news editor of Charles Saatchi’s online magazine.