About the Exhibition
In scale and multiplicity of sites, Lost: New York Projects is a first. Christian Boltanski (b.1944, Paris, France) is acknowledged worldwide as one of the most influential artists of the post-war generation. Boltanski, who has been called the “poet advocate for the dispossessed,” is known for his highly personal and disconcerting body of work, fashioned from such everyday materials as blurry family snapshots, grainy magazine blow-ups, bare light-bulbs, and rusty tin boxes.
In Lost: New York Projects, Boltanski applies his particular field of inquiry—centering on the limits of memory and identity, both personal and collective—to a city synonymous with anonymity, relentless urban change and willful reinvention of the self.
James M. Clark, executive director of the Public Art Fund, said, “The four locations chosen for this New York project embody Boltanski’s belief in the possibility of restitution—and its difficulty. Each of the four is an historic city landmark undergoing a form of restoration and revitalization. Historical society, synagogue, church, train station—as repositories of community memory and as agents for continuity, they are apt symbols indeed in an artwork that addresses the permeability of both personal and community memory.”
“Boltanski has long been considered one of the most innovative artists to locate his practice outside of conventional museum and gallery settings. Yet he has never before been given the opportunity to create an artwork dealing specifically with New York City,” stated Susan K. Freedman, president of the Public Art Fund. She continued, “This exciting collaboration is long overdue.”
Christian Boltanski, in describing Lost: New York Projects, said, “Because I’m most interested in questioning the relationship between art and life, I am excited to locate this piece in four places in New York that are outside of the context of contemporary art.”
In Harlem, one ton of clothes—second-hand but clean and of good-quality—are scattered in heaps on the floor of the nave of the Church of the Intercession. Upon entering, a visitor may buy a brown paper bag bearing the artist’s name and the word, “Dispersion,” the title of the piece; for $2, the bag may be filled to the brim with clothing. Boltanski has designed Dispersion to function dually, so that some visitors will understand the situation in terms of its practical function, as a way to buy needed clothes. Others will purchase a bag as an art “relic” or “work of art.”
In Grand Central Terminal, more than five thousand personal belongings lost by commuters over the course of the past six months—from bibles to a football helmet—are displayed on metal shelves in the station’s Incoming Train Room. Although the artifacts are chosen randomly, the unifying circumstance of their appearance in the station’s “lost and found” lends an elliptical, but authentic, sense of a city and its anonymous workaday life.
A portrait of an anonymous New Yorker is presented in Inventory in the city’s oldest museum, the New-York Historical Society. From a well-used toothbrush and plastic blow dryer to battered metal bookshelf, items belonging to an unnamed city resident, chosen randomly, will be displayed on pedestals and in vitrines. Each artifact will be labeled as if its function were unclear—i.e., as if it were an object in an ethnographic museum. By showing commonplace items of today as treasured, historical artifacts, Boltanski hopes to convey how objects become memorialized and made valuable over time and through presentation. Inventory provides an arresting contrast to other everyday items, all from the past, which will be on view concurrently at the museum in the exhibition, “Treasury of the Past.”
The issue of how the past is transmitted is also explored by Boltanski in What They Remember at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, built in 1887 by Eastern European Jewish immigrants as their first great house of worship in New York. The artist, working with colleague Leslie Camhi, interviewed and recorded the personal histories of children from the synagogue and the local neighborhood. The children were asked how their families came to New York and for their memories of familial countries and cultures. In the sanctuary of the synagogue during Lost: New York Projects, these records of settlement play as an audio “collage” of the children’s lore, a testament to the strength and fragility of any shared memory of the past.
Says Boltanski, “For several years, I have wanted to assemble a number of public projects that I have realized elsewhere in different contexts, to create a new installation for New York.” Thus, Lost Property at Grand Central Terminal is similar to the arrangement realized last year in Glasgow, Scotland; and Inventory to various versions actualized since 1972. Dispersion grows out of a series of monumental installations created by Boltanski in the 1980s wherein thousands of second-hand garments signified, simultaneously, the presence and absence of a human life—that is, death. In 1988, the artist entitled a major installation of mounds of discarded clothing, Canada, borrowing the title from the euphemistic name the Nazis gave to the warehouse where interned Jews left their personal belongings. What They Remember at the Eldridge Street Synagogue marks the first project of its kind by the artist.
In conjunction with Lost: New York Projects, Christian Boltanski will create a limited edition multiple. Proceeds from its sale will go to the Public Art Fund for producing this project. Each multiple, entitled Lost, will be one of the artist’s signature tin boxes, containing a photograph and found object selected by the artist to reflect the image of the average New Yorker as portrayed in the mislaid personal belongings of Lost Property. No two multiples will be alike.