"To die is very strange."
Christian Boltanski on Death, Sex, Gambling and God
Christian Boltanski’s art plays a shamanic role in our world. It attempts again and again to grasp the lost souls of humanity in order to preserve their value. We have the sense that if he could get any of these souls in a headlock, he would try to wrestle them into revealing something more about the fathomless. Hailed as one of the most influential artists of his generation, his work shares an omnipotence with its favorite subjects: Death and God.
Chance, a three-part artwork originally commissioned for the Venice Biennale of 2011, has recently come to life again at Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia, at an even greater scale. With images of newborn Polish babies spliced with images of newly dead Swiss, and digital installations of the numerical statistics of international births and deaths as they happen, this work, partly fed through an exaggerated printing press akin to a soul factory, is laced with his signature combination of mystery itself, and the longing to uncover whether life is happenstance or a mapped and meaningful destiny.
Chance makes the viewer feel uplifted and also small, and if we feel gratitude as well, it may be because after a lifetime of asking, the artist continues to question the invisible maker in order to pull us through the shamanic time warp, to be touched by an oeuvre that wants so badly to know.
I sat down with Boltanski under the colossal scaffolding of Chance, to talk to him about death, sex, gambling and God, and the altered state of being continually watched by a webcam.
THE BELIEVER: One of the striking sensations I feel from Chance is the shock of how random and fleeting life actually is the way you show it to us scientifically — when it feels so important while living it.
CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI: The science about life is very optimistic. Every second, four people in the world die, and six are born. This is optimistic. But life goes very fast and is only interested in living; life is only interested in being alive while moving at a pace toward its own end. Some time soon there will be another artist sitting here, and another writer. They won’t be the very same as you and I, but they will be similar. We are unique, but replaceable.
I like looking at the finger of God. Why it takes one and not another, why this one or that one, why now or why then. The finger of God is always on us. When you get older and you see your friends dying around you, you say “Why not me?” That machine is always there.
If there is a God, he doesn’t know us. It’s like if we walk in a forest and we kill some insects. He isn’t against us but he doesn’t know us. This machine is blind, it just takes what it can take, that’s all.