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SECOND HAND – SECOND LIFE THE SECOND LIFE OF DISCARDED CLOTHING Annette Hülsenbeck
Christian Boltanski at the Grand Palais, Paris
View at the direction of the dome with the Christian Boltanski installation; Grand Palais, Paris All photos: Didier Plowy, © Monumenta 2010, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, Paris
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Visitors of the 'Monumenta 2010' at the Grand Palais: Installations by Christian Boltanski
The Paris Grand Palais was built in 1900 for the f irst world exposition of the new century – a splendid steel frame construction with what is still the largest glass roof in Europe. The building was France’s ‘showcase’ to the world, presenting the most advanced technological inventions and the latest commodities and art movements. In 2010, the Grand Palais was the venue of a show featuring f i f ty tonnes of used clothes – in Paris, a city traditionally associated with elegant haute couture and the exciting f lair of the latest fashion creations.
Artist Christian Boltanski has employed clothing from old clothes collections for his installations since 1988 – hung on walls (Réserve Canada), scattered on the floor (La Fête de Purim), or stacked on shelves (Réserve du Musée d’Enfants). In Personnes (the name alludes to a paradox plural of either ‘no one’ or ‘everyone’/ ‘people’) the secondhand clothes have been placed in two arrangements designed for the exhibition space. The nave of the Grand Palais houses one hundred rectangular f ields of clothing, each measuring eight by five metres, their corners marked by twometre-high, rusty iron girders that form a grid, with speakers mounted at their tops. Wires span each f ield lengthwise, and fluorescent tubes suspended at their centres cast a cold light on the whole. Walkways have been left between the f ields to allow visitors to amble through them, like garden beds. The rotunda that adjoins the nave, suggesting a transept,
holds a ten-metre high pile of clothing, visually framed by the elegant Art Nouveau staircase leading to the open stage of the f irst gallery surrounding the rotunda wall. From this ‘celestial’ height, the boom of a crane with a f ive-fingered red ‘hand’ constantly picks up clothes from the pile, lifting them a few metres and dropping them again.
The entrance opposite the rotunda and its pile of clothing is (initially) blocked by a wall of rusty biscuit tins numbered non-systematically. Stacked to a width of thirty metres and a height of four metres, it obliges visitors to make a decision on whether to pass it to the left or right to gain entry. On entering the Grand Palais one hears a murmur, an unsynchronised knocking sound audible over the wall that f ills the room.
The clothes laid out and piled up were drawn from the stores of old clothes collection services, bought by Boltanski for an installation just for a l imited time, sorted and arranged for the exhibition. As far as the viewer can see, there is only outerwear, no underwear, no nightdresses, no swimsuits...
What ‘game’ is being played here, or rather: what does the show play at? Almost every interpretation centres on the following motifs: clothing used as a proxy for absent people whose bodily forms can still be discerned; a reference to impermanence and death; a specific historic reference to the holocaust and concentration camps. The installation is said to “trigger a wide range of associations relating to burial sites and ‘the remains of life’.” 1) Boltanski’s work (and biography) contain references that invite such associations, for instance a 1989 piece entitled La Fête de Purim, with more than a thousand pounds of worn clothing scattered across the f loor of the Basel Museum für Gegenwartskunst; Réserve Canada, composed of more than six thousand suspended items of clothing; Canada, a misleading National Socialist term for the warehouses in which the possessions of interned Jews were stored.
In Memory, History, Forgetting Paul Ricœur writes that the past (made present through remembrance) can colonise the future, threatening to restrict its potential. Interpretations that zero in on (Jewish-German) history enable fashionconscious Paris to endure the discarded clothes, brought back to life in a format fit for a world exposition.
Walter Benjamin characterised fashion and death as a dialectic f igure in modernity, writing in his Arcades Project: “For fashion was never anything else than a parody of the colourful corpse”. His statement addresses both the fast pace and the impermanence of fashionable clothing, which ‘dies’ almost the instant it comes to life. Boltanski places importance on this dimension of things present and contemporary; he wants the – worn – clothes he uses to be ‘fresh products’. When his installations are purchased, he sells the idea of the arrangement, obligating museums to recycle the clothes after a single show and to buy new old clothes for each
Used clothes arranged on the floor, the installation 'Personnes' at the Grand Palais
Christian Boltanski: "Réserve Canada", 1988; at the Musée de Grenoble, 1991
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