Christian Boltanski and Roni Horn are two contemporary artists who use photography as a means to an end. If asked Boltanski would probably shrug off the notion that he is a photographer let alone someone who even cares how a camera works. Horn would
probably react the same way, insisting that she is more interested in drawing on paper than processing film. Never the less these two artist have used the medium of photography as a way to transcend their ideas of what it is to be human in a post modern age. Through the lens of the camera they question ideas of identity, memory, place, the present and the past.
Although they share the same apathy towards photography, their perception of how the photographic images works as an object are completely different. Here, I will explore the similarities and difference between two specific bodies of work from the two artists: “Menshclick” from Boltanski and “You Are the Weather” from Horn. With the use of portraiture, these two projects look into the heart of humanity and find something dark and grim but also something tender and loving.
Christian Boltanski no doubt draws his inspiration from his experiences as child. His father was Jewish of Ukrainian decent and his mother was from Corsica. He was born during WWII and he his family spent the better part of the war hiding from Nazis. Themes of childhood memory and death permeate most, if not all, of his works. He was once quoted as saying, “I began to work as an artist when I began to be an adult, when I understood that my childhood was finished, and was dead. I think we all have somebody who is dead inside of us. A dead child. I remember the Little Christian that is dead inside me.”
For Christian Boltanski every photograph is a little death. For him photography is a medium that undeniably ties together the acts of dieing and remembering. Like trying to preserve a butterfly under glass, it most first be killed in order for it last forever. Most would consider this kind of talk morbid and depressing, but this is the crux of Boltanski’s vision. He sees death as a form of enlightenment. For him, it is a way of putting our existence into perspective, a way of establishing our humanity and defining the only true common human experience. Death binds us and pulls us apart.
In Boltanski’s installation entitled Menschlick (Humanity) 1995 , he explores the common traits in humans that go beyond skin colors, religions, or nationalities. His search is one of the human condition. In this piece Boltanski is looking for the common denominator in an ocean of numbers, and those numbers add up to about 1,300 photographs.
This installation was composed of photographs from Boltanski’s extensive archive. All of them were acquired from newspaper obituaries, journals, magazines and other ephemeral sources. All of the images were also previously used in other installations. For example Menschlick is populated with dead people from Switzerland, which he used in an installation called ‘The Dead Swiss’. Boltanski chose the Swiss because he believes they are the embodiment of happiness and neutrality. For Boltanski they represented a kind of universality. For him, the Swiss are what everyone wants to become. But with that said the artist also included a wide array of ‘other’ people.
Aside from including dead Swiss, Boltanski also incorporated Spanish killers, murderers, French victims, casualties of war, Nazi, Jews and members of the Mickey Mouse Club. The images are 15.7’’ x 15.7’’ silver gelatin prints in simple black-bordered frames behind glass. He mixed all of the photographs into one group to strip them of their individual identities. They are all just faces now, tightly cropped and hung on a wall one inch away from each other creating a new context for their existance. The work is install in a way that completely over-takes the viewer and forces the only undeniable fact; all of the images are of humans. The viewer cannot escape the maze of faces and one cannot differentiate between the good people and the bad people. Boltanski has done this to make the point that the same person that saves your life today has the ability to murder you tomorrow. With Menschlick he is delving into the human animal and stating that in our hearts we are neither good nor bad but instead we are beings that act and react within given circumstances.
Each photograph in the installation is a representation of someone that is dead or is going to die. Yet we can look into their dark eyes and see of our loved ones, ourselves. This confrontation with Death in the face of a stranger is the artist’s precise intention. Christian Boltanski wants us to remember that, ‘the fact of dying is inside the fact of living.’
By comparisons Roni Horn uses the tightly cropped portrait as a landscape for finding life within a persons face, not death. The eyes of her subject act as a window to the human soul not as an abyss leading into oblivion. Horn’s photographic installation entitled, You Are the Weather (1994-95) is a four-wall installation of 100 photographs (36 silver-gelatin and 64 chromogenic prints). There are 17 fixed sequences that are installed in a flexible order all hung at eye level. Through the photographs the viewer can trace Horn’s exploration unfold, as a woman looks deep into her camera’s lens to reveal something beautiful and incorporeal.
For this body of work Horn and her model Margret traveled through Iceland visiting geothermal pools and hot springs for a six-week period. At each site the model submerged herself up to her neck in the water as Horn makes picture after picture of her face. The portraits are monotone, warm and quite. They reveal the artists perseverance in her exploration of the subtle changes in the model’s face. At each location and in-between each frame, something changes. There is a slight shifting of the camera’s point of view and an even more subtle shift of emotion in Margret. Is she reacting to Horn or is she reacting to the temperature of the pool? More over is she now reacting to ‘you’, the viewer of the photograph? Horn has transformed a human face into a barometer for emotion.
The repetition of the woman model represents the constant. It is the unchanging variable that allows the true essence of the piece to emerge. Roni Horn is looking for the tenderness of humanity in Margret’s face. Those small almost unnoticeable traces of curiousity and love take you deeper into her expression. There exists sensuality in her gaze that holds the viewer as it reminds us of how a lover might look back at you. The stare is subjective and welcoming and yet at times is seems frustrated and confused. It’s the kind of communication that is purely visual like the way a newborn baby studies the expression of its mother, watching and mimicking her love.
There exist many similarities between Boltanski and Horn’s pieces. For example as artists they are both playing the role of pseudo-scientist in the organization of the images in Menschlick and You Are the Weather. Also there are parallels in the way they installed these works too. Formally the use of the close-cropped portrait and emphasis on the face as a catalyst for emotional response is clear. In addition, their use of many photographs in close proximity of each other strategically emphasizes the idea of a collection or archive.
However, many there are many more conceptual differences between Menschlick and You Are the Weather then there are formal similarities. Conceptually these two artist are both exploring humanity as a whole but their modes and intentions are very different. Boltanski for instance does not make new pictures but rather gives new life to existing imagery. In this way he not perpetuating the ‘little deaths’ that occur when a photograph is taken and instead is creating a memorial for the ones who have died. This evidence of death is further illustrated in the way Boltanski prints some of his images out of focus, removing the detail of their faces and turning them into ghosts. By contrast Horn is actively making new images and is somewhat in control of the condition in which they are being created.
In Menschlick Christian Boltanski is exploring the dark world of death itself and going to places even more frightening, the past. The people in his photographs once existed, but the photograph itself tells us nothing about them. Boltanski suggests that who they were as people is irrelevant to the fact that they were humans. To him to be human is not singular but is in fact a collective experience. The individual lives of each one of his faces are trumped by death itself, because death consumes all in the end. And when that end comes all that is left is an image of a person but never the person.
Dissimilarly, Roni Horn is looking for life not death in her pictures of Margret. Her choice to only use one model gives reference to the time in one person’s life, further placing You Are the Weather in the present rather than in the past like Menschlick. Horn’s choice of the number of images for the installation, 100, also refers to life expectancy. By human standards to live to be a hundred is considered to be close to the maximum amount of year a human has the potential to live.
Moreover Horn’s search in the human face is geared more towards the qualities that make us alive. In Margret’s face she finds tenderness and compassion. These images are clear and warm, and invite the viewer to stare back.
Both Boltanski and Horn what to evoke a visceral response from their works, but what is truly remarkable is how these responses are polar opposites of each other. Whether or not the viewer likes one piece over the other is irrelevant to the fact that these two artists are exploring different sides of the some coin. As ancient as night and day or stories of Darkness and the Light, Menschlick and You Are the Weather both reflect traits that all of humanity shares.