CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI No Mans Land
PARK AVENUE ARMORY | MAY 14 – JUNE 13, 2010
If a work of art isn’t working when it’s small, it probably won’t work any better if it’s 10 times the size. The problem with this truth truism is that if bigger isn’t necessarily better, it is often more spectacular and, unfortunately, in some sad cases, spectacle is passed off as real feeling (much of what was on display at “Skin Fruit” at the New Museum comes quickly to mind.)
Christian Boltanski’s enormous installation “No Man’s Land” at the Park Avenue Armory provides a rare instance where size is roughly proportionate to emotional impact. Where some artists’ default setting is “as grandiose as possible,” hitting the emotional sweet spot often only by happenstance, Boltanski’s work always feels very considered. Well-known for his hyper-intimate constructions and installations that use photos and personal effects to trace lives lost and forgotten, Boltanski’s work inspires an intense ambivalence about the state of being human. It resides in a potent territory between optimism and pessimism where you can’t decide whether life can or can’t be recuperated by the things we leave behind. It’s often hard to decide whether his works are memorials or anti-memorials. They are like reaching into the pocket of a suit purchased at an estate sale for a few dollars and finding someone’s business card: you find yourself on an emotional journey that begins with indifference, leads through thoughts of universal interconnectedness, and eventually concludes with a most profound sorrow that all the sound and fury of this invisible person’s existence can be reduced to a piece of paper and a bunch of strangers scavenging his belongings for few salvageable scraps.
At the Park Avenue Armory, Boltanski twists our emotions into knots with the help of a 60-foot-high crane and a literal mountain of used garments sitting in the dead center of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall. With droning regularity, the crane dips down to grab a heap of clothes from the top of the pile, raises and then releases its jaws so that the clothes scatter and fall back onto the mound. The clothes flutter downward with a lifelike animation, as if remembering the movements they made when they were filled with muscle and bone. Though the exhibition’s literature lets us know these are used clothes, that familiar, musty Salvation Army odor gives their thrift store origins away before reading a word. Every minute or so, the crane slowly descends, grabs another clump of motley apparel, tilts up 20 feet and drops it again, ever churning and reshaping the pile in a Sisyphean cycle.
Arrayed around the central drama of crane and garment-mountain are rectilinear patches of used clothes arranged in a grid, providing narrow rows for viewers to navigate through, where their distance from the action creates the illusion that the crane and falling clothing are operating in slow motion—an eerie, intense, almost surreal atmosphere augmented by the intense spotlights, the haunting audio loop of a beating heart, and the gaping, darkened industrial interior.
As with his more intimate work, “No Man’s Land” makes use of decidedly personal and individualizing artifacts, while its seriality and accumulation frustrates our urge to relate to them at a personal level. One can’t help but toggle constantly between the field of clothing as a signifier of a mass of people and a glimpse of a pair of red sweatpants as a signifier of a single life. And the overwhelming space in union with the content provides the perfect scalar relationship between the personal and impersonal. With “No Man’s Land,” Boltanski manages to put flesh on Stalin’s statement, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” much in the way Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial manages to emphasize the value of each life lost in Vietnam.
When speaking of a work of art, the terms “size” and “scale” are often used interchangeably, when in fact scale is relative and size absolute. The difficulty with the notion of scale when it comes to artwork is that what it is relative to is often abstract. It refers to the fragile network of contingencies an artist is responsible for controlling between the work, the viewer, and the space. It refers to alternative choices that can’t be seen. In “No Man’s Land,” Boltanski does not allow the overwhelmingly large space to suffocate his work, nor does he suffocate the space by using it as some kind of spectacular proving ground for an overdetermined art work. “No Man’s Land” is a huge piece, but it never loses sight, in its scale and ambition, of the individual lives it commemorates, or of those who have come to contemplate them.