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Feature / Christian Boltanski

In memory of Christian Boltanski: “Thank you, Christian”

Special issue

The news of Christian Boltanski’s death was announced to the world on 14 July 2021. He was one of the artists who have long and deeply engaged with Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale. In memory of Christian Boltanski, we shall look back the journey that he took with Echigo-Tsumari.

Text and edit by Art Front Gallery Co., Ltd.

18 July 2021

“Les Linges” (2000) Photo by ANZA ï

“Les Linges” was an artwork he created for the first ETAT in 2000. He put up wires over the 0.5 hectare field by the bank of the Kiyotsugawa river, a branch river of the Shinanogawa river, and hang hundreds of white old clothes at equal intervals which were collected from the local people. It was a proposal considering “the festival must be working on the tight budget”. Reflecting light and shimmering in the wind, they resembled “the trembles of souls of people who lived here or who had no choice but to leave this place” which perfectly represented “human presence and absence, life and death”; the consistent theme he had pursued throughout his artistic journey. At dusk, children came and ran around with excitement saying “(ghosts will be) coming, coming”. We still remember Boltanski happily working with locals, and signing on their T-shirts smiling.

Voyage d’Et? (2003) – collaborative work with Jean Kalman

Voyage d’Et? (2003) – collaborative work with Jean Kalman

For the 2nditeration of ETAT in 2003, Boltanski put his hand up to participate in the festival and created “Voyage d’Et” in the former Higashikawa Elementary School in Matsunoyama, in collaboration with Jean Kalman, the internationally acclaimed stage lighting designer. Countless number of slippers hanging at the entrance, the wild flowers in the science room, children’s clothes dangling in the classroom and chanting from the gym: One could feel the presence of children and see their illusions as if in daydream.

“The Last Class” (2006) collaboration with Jean Kalman. Photo by T. Kuratani


Renewal of the space on the third floor “The Last Class” in 2009

Boltanski and Kalman visited Echigo-Tsumari in winter when the snowfall was the heaviest on record, this time, in order to create a permanent artwork at the former Higashikawa Elementary School. It was driven by their desire to experience Echigo-Tsumari which spends close to half of the year in snow. The floor of the gym is covered with straw and their smell and heat are blown around by many old fans. As you proceed, the afterimage of falling snow and flickering bare light bulbs are swinging while you would heard the heartbeat – the record of Boltanski’s heartbeat – from the science room.

The preview was attended by many local old people. They whispered to each other “yes, the winter when we are locked down by the snow feels just like this” as they saw the acrylic coffins laid out on snow-white sheets. Things that they brought, relating to the region and the school, have been quietly displayed in the back of the music room. “The Last Class” has become one of the representing masterpieces of Echigo-Tsumari and is still one of the most popular works. During the forth iteration of the ETAT, we recorded the heartbeats of visitors at this artwork which resulted in ”Les Archives du Coeur” in Setouchi Triennale 2010.


※1:In 2009, the space on the third floor was transformed by installing more curtains. We also presented an installation of old clothes for limited duration as well as recorded the heartbeats of 416 people in the booth being set up in order to contribute to Boltanski’s project to collect heartbeats across the world. This was lead to ”Les Archives du Coeur” in Setouchi Triennale 2010.

“No Man’s Land” (2012) Photo by Nakamura Osamu

And for the fifth iteration of ETAT in 2012, Boltanski presented “No Man’s Land” in the courtyard of Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art, KINARE. While this work had already shown in Milan, Paris and New York, Boltanski visited the affected areas of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake prior to create this piece for the festival. The mountain of enormous amount of old clothes weighing 16 tons were randomly grabbed and dropped by a crane called “the hand of God”. The work, which seemed to suggest the fate of mankind, overwhelmed visitors.


▲The footage of Boltanski working on the final adjustment of “No Man’s Land” on 26 July 2012, which was taken just before the opening of the festival. (created by IMAI Yoshiaki)


Théâtre d’ombres (Theatre of Shadows)(2018)


Boltanski continued to engage with Echigo-Tsumari by installing another new artwork called “Théâtre d’ombres” on the second floor of former Higashikawa Elementary School where “The Last Class” has been presented. He was, in fact, in preparation for the next ETAT. The local old people who help run the operation of “The Last Class” have been carefully looking after the work and talk about the concept of the work to visitors on behalf of Boltanski.

Many people both at home and far away have expressed their sadnesss and condolences at Boltanski’s death. A huge number of people, from young children to the old have experienced his artworks which have made and kept strong impression on them. Boltanski told us that he would hope that his works would become places of pilgrimage like old temples and shrines even his name may have been forgotten. We would like to express our gratitude for him to have made such places in Echigo-Tsumari and left us with fond memories. We send our heartfelt condolences.


Christian Boltanski


Born in 1944 in Paris, France. Since released a short film in 1968 followed by a participation in Documenta, an international contemporary art festival in 1972 held in Kassel, Germany, Boltanski has presented his works across the globe created under the core theme of both collective and individual memories and presence and absence. He has built deep connections to Japan since the first solo exhibition held in ICA Nagoya and Mito Art Tower in 1990 and 91 to participations in Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale and Setouchi Triennale with permanent artworks in 2000s to date. His solo exhibitions were held at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum in 2016, The National Museum of Art, Osaka, The National Art Center, Tokyo and Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum in 2019-2020. He received Praemium Imperiale in 2016. His major collections are held at Museum of Modern Art (USA), Tate Gallery (UK), the Centre Georges Pompidou (France). He is known as one of the most prominent French contemporary artists. His work will be presented at the 8thiteration of ETAT which has been decided to be held in summer 2022.

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