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After having shunned it for a long time, Versailles, the Louvre and Pompidou honor Christian Boltanski


“9 h 52 min … 9 h 52 min and 15 s … 9 h 52 min and 30 s …” The voice of the speaking clock tells the passage of moments, and the count resounds in the royal chapel of Versailles. Christian Boltanski imagined this fiercely simple sound piece in 2003 and performed it in 2009 in the crypt of the cathedral in Salzburg, Austria. It had not been reactivated since then. On the morning of Tuesday, October 12, it was, in memory of the artist who died on July 14.

Boltanski preferred dark places and parsimonious lighting. A crypt could therefore only suit him. The royal chapel is the opposite: very high ceilings, two registers superimposed with colonnades, light walls, the gold of the statues and frames. The power of the installation is not diminished, but increased by contrast: even in this sumptuous place where everything signifies the power of the king, time, therefore death, is more powerful than him. He wins every time.

During his lifetime, Boltanski had not been invited to exhibit at Versailles, unlike other artists much less interesting, but undoubtedly more in court or reputed to be less intractable. He hadn’t been in the Louvre either, for the same reasons. He is posthumously, and this is the second part of the tribute that official cultural institutions wanted to pay him. The Archives of Christian Boltanski 1965-1988 (1989), according to the full title of the installation, are in the large gallery of the museum: a wall of metal cookie tins, much rusty, placed on top of each other in twenty horizontal rows and, above each of the thirty-two columns of boxes, a small electric desk lamp.

Memory and forgetfulness

They contain more than two thousand written and photographic documents. These would be so many elements for a biography, but they are now both exposed and inaccessible, because opening the boxes would endanger the work. Like many of Boltanski’s works, this one is thus built on the clashes between memory and oblivion, history and myth, revelation and secrecy. It is therefore of a meditative nature, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons why it was placed not only in the great gallery, a prestigious place par excellence, but in front of the equally meditative paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, the Virgin of the rocks (around 1483-1494) or the Saint Jean Baptist (around 1517-1520). Another reason for this proximity is due to the extreme attention with which both, with such different means, make light and its shades an essential element of their language: physical light which is a metaphor for light of thought.

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