Personnes at the Grand Palais

Personnes at the Grand Palais in Paris from 21 January to 21 February 2010

Technicians wearing white coats who record your heartbeat in designated booths isn’t the first idea that springs to mind when imagining an art exhibition in Paris; but it is the monotonous thud of some 15,000 recorded throbs which sets the background to Christian Boltanski’s exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.

French sculptor, photographer and installation artist Boltanski is in the process of creating his own archive of heartbeats which are destined for an isolated and inaccessible island in Japan – it is this common theme of absurdity and tragedy which runs throughout Boltanski’s work, the latest of which is displayed as one of the Monumenta series.

Boltanski follows Anselm Kiefer and Richard Serra in the annual Parisian exhibition which by invitation only invites some of the biggest artists to confront one of the largest and most prominent spaces in the world at Paris’s answer to the Turbine Hall.

In mid winter you shiver as you enter the 13,500 square meter glass-roof exhibition space, with curving art nouveau ironwork; Boltanski has requested no heating.  You are greeted with a stack of rusting boxes, each numbered with four digits, each with their contents anonymous.  They look like they should hold the belongings of dead people.

Behind the boxes the vast grey stone floor stretches out.  Secondhand clothes are laid in grids across the exhibition space, each corner marked with a metal stake, each with a neon light suspended above.  The clothes are worn but yet anonymous, and seem to belong to no one – a chilling reminder of our imminent death and the obscurity we face post life.

But the clothes will probably be thrown away as life moves on.

From the back of the room comes the mechanical groan of God’s crane as it lowers creaking, red metal claws over a vast 50-tonne mountain of clothes, arbitrarily grabbing several items before raising them to the roof and then releasing them, allowing them to sail gently down to their source in a display of inescapable fate.

The human valves are still pulsating, ethereal in their being.  Visitors are invited to record their own heartbeat for the archive.

The watery winter sunshine casts a miserable light over the exhibition’s contents.  Walking around the exhibition and honouring the dead feels depressing.  You could imagine people waiting in line to be deported.

Everything is ordered but at the same time empty, a chilling reminder of genocide and concentration camps.  Personnes, Boltanski’s double edged title, meaning ‘people’ and ‘nobody’ is fitting for a room which feels full but as if there is nobody there.

As I leave the hundreds and thousands of heartbeats are still going and indeed they are increasing in volume and becoming stranger.  I feel overwhelmed by a desire to detach myself from my death with which I have been confronted.  As the sound of heartbeats resonates I know that at least something of me will remain.

I guess nobody wants to be forgotten when they die.

Written by Amelia Smith