When experiencing ‘Heartbeats’, the installation by French artist Christian Boltanski currently at Baró Galeria, a certain anxiety takes the chest. In the centre of the room, a flashing incandescent lamp synchronises with the thudding beats, illuminating sixty-one blackboards of different sizes hung on the painted grey walls. The stormy vibration of bass notes reverberate the gallery and (somewhat appropriately) quicken the heart.
This installation at Baró is a subversion of Boltanski’s existing (and ongoing) work ‘Les Archives du Coeur’ (The Heart Archives) which globally collects the heartbeats of audiences as the installation tours the world, and stores them in a permanent archive. Here, Boltanski instead shares his own heartbeat, inviting viewers to experience a unique kind of self-portrait and drawing on the unifying life symbolism of a beating heart.
The universal themes of loss, memory, past and death have occupied central roles throughout Boltanski’s practice, that in many instances emerged from his reflections upon the Holocaust. In 1986, he presented the work ‘Autel de Lycee Chases’, an installation comprised of images of Jewish students photographed in Vienna in 1931, framed in some sort of an altar as a memento symbol of the genocide. Similarly, the work ‘Monument (Odessa)’ (1989-2003), sees six photographs of Jewish students taken in 1939 illuminated by Yahrzeit candles in honour of those who died as a result of the holocaust. ‘The Missing House’, 1990, was conceived in response to an apartment in central Berlin, as a memorial of the absence of the Jews who lived there and who died as a result of aerial bombardment, which occurred in February 1945. The memorial consists of signs indicating the residents’ names, dates of birth and death, and their professions. The huge 2010 installation ‘No Man’s Land’, presented at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, also arose as a way to remember lost and forgotten lives.
‘Heartbeats’ echoes those previous works, engaging the audience in a strong sensorial and reflective experience. While immersed in ‘Heartbeats’ larger philosophical questions come to the fore - What is the essence of life? Can we truly preserve something that fades with death?
Since the 1970s Boltanski seems to have been attempting to preserve life in some way. He is by no means alone - we all naturally engage in this fight to save objects and memories that bring us close to those who are gone: either through a piece of clothing, a photograph, a scent, a song. Boltanski’s ‘Heartbeats’ installation evidences a utopian struggle to preserve life. It seems to suggest that we are like the small and fragile lamp in the darkness: that even in co-ordinating rhythmic flashes as a luminescent pacemaker and sending towering sounds into space, we will inevitably fade away.