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Three hundred Japanese bells suspended from long rods in the immaculate whiteness of a landscape at the end of the world (Ile d’Orléans in Quebec) make us hear, in their soft tinkling, “the music of the stars and the voices of floating souls” (Christian Boltanski, sic). Filmed in a long sequence, from dawn to dusk, they lull us, charm us, hypnotize us… and acquire, beyond their fragile beauty, an astonishing presence. The plastic beauty and poetic power of this work by Christian Boltanski (1944-2021) is fascinating.

Artiste © Adagp, Paris,
Photographique © Louis Vuitton / Jérémie Souteyrat

It is part of a series of outdoor installations located in the middle of huge, secluded spaces, and therefore doomed to disappear, inspired by the small altars honoring the dead on the roadsides of Chile. The first version of these Animitas (“little souls” in Spanish) took place in 2014 in the Atacama Desert in Chile, the second (The Forest of Whispers) on Teshima Island in Japan in 2016, and the last (Dead Mothers), on the cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea in 2017. These are thousands of souls attached to these places that the artist wanted to connect to ours through the power of prayer and contemplation. 

Allegory of the fragility of memory and the passage of time, these installations came to complete the great “failure,” which, for Boltanski, constituted all his work (because, how to fight against oblivion since everything disappears, everything is erased …). They arrived after the photo albums, registers, boxes, reliquaries, tombs and other monuments to the dead. So many traces and ghosts of the past…. Among these last, a number of works echo Animitas (“One always makes more or less the same work” affirmed the plastician shortly before his death in 2021).

Artiste © Adagp, Paris,
Photographique © Louis Vuitton / Christian Kain

Thus, the Candles (1986), making a cohort of small figurines flicker, or the Black Mirrors (2005), sending back the image of specters, of reflections ready to disappear – such as that of a light bulb flickering to the rhythm of the beating of a heart, during the last retrospective of the artist at the Pompidou Center in 2020. And above all, Les Linges, carts loaded with mounds of white linen sheets, presented surrounded by the spirits, that is to say, ghostly children’s faces, barely visible, projected on the walls of the Marian Godman gallery during the last exhibition dedicated to the artist during his lifetime.

Going beyond the materiality of the work to approach the myth, these parades, like the Animitas, reach a form of collective ritual, where the intimate and the universal merge; however, by their sound dimension, the small bells resounding “the voice of the floating souls” seem to reach the ultimate stage of the artist’s quest, who, if he assimilated sculpture to “the art of space” saw in music “the art of time.”

Stéphanie Dulout