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Boltanski has always been a maker of monuments and memorials. His medium is the human trace and the memento mori. In the 1970s, he used to exhibit the “documents” of his own life, letters, scraps, locks of hair, photographs of himself as a child (which were probably nothing of the sort). Later, he began to commemorate the lives of others.

The Dead Swiss, the Children of Dijon: these world-famous shrines were assembled from photographs cut from obituaries, heaps of secondhand clothes, biscuit tins that might, or might not, contain personal effects; false memories, so to speak, especially since the dead were always anonymous. But these objects and images, no matter their provenance, were inevitably powerful for the sympathetic mind can hardly help but reconstruct a life from the smallest and most trivial of relics.

Pawned brooches, lost umbrellas, dogeared telephone books with their intensely intimate yet resolutely impersonal listings: your mind would rush in, imagining all these other people in other places. It did not matter that the evidence was meagre, partial, perhaps entirely specious, because the objects themselves were real, had once belonged to real livings beings.

That their owners were unknown equated very precisely with the universality of the evidence – a watch, a coat – and the poignant truth that one could only mourn the unknown through an act of the imagination.

Guardian review

Christain Boltanski’s Personnes

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