Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Paris is full of old buildings and art of centuries past. Sometimes amid all that history and tradition, the modern can get overlooked. Recently, however, it took center stage when I attended a private viewing of  the Monumenta 2010 exhibit of Christian Boltanski's Personnes at the Grand Palais. Boltanski, born in France in 1944, is considered one of the leading artists on the contemporary scene although he, himself, views his art as being very traditional and classic.  

In Personnes, visitors are invited to become part of the installation. In French the word personne means both somebody and nobody. The exhibit, according to Boltanski, is about the transition between "being" and "no longer being," between somebody and nobody.  That statement alone is enough to evoke the powerful sense of oppression that Boltanski seeks, along with "an episode of spectacular motion and sensations exploring the nature and meaning of human existence." 

About 50 personnes - some of whom certainly looked like somebodies - all of us experiencing a sensation of extreme cold, waited for the enormous doors of the Grand Palais to open. When they did, what we saw was a tall wall of numbered metal boxes, completely blocking the view of the acres-long nave of the Grand Palais. Inside perhaps are  ashes -  or memories  - or nothing. 

The next thing you notice is that it is just as cold inside as out and that there is a deafening noise. It comes from a huge crane poised over a five ton, 100-foot high mountain of clothes. The red jaws descend, randomly pick up some clothes, lift them up to the ceiling and drop them back onto the pile.  Again and again and again. The hand of God? The randomness of fate? The individuality of each human existence? The guides, bundled up in down coats, were giving explanations, but it was difficult to hear them over another sound - that of 69 heartbeats being broadcast from speakers mounted on metal poles. The poles surround  69 cemetery-like rectangles laid out on the vast floor of the Grand Palais. Discarded clothes, starkly illuminated by lamps strung from the metal poles, are neatly spread out in each rectangle.  If you place your hand on any of the poles, you can feel the vibration of an individual heartbeat, previously indistinguishable among the masses.

In a separate project entitled Archives du coeur, Boltanski has collected the sounds of 40,000 heartbeats of people from around the world. Visitors to Personnes can have their own heartbeat added to the collection and about 10,000 people, including me, have done so. In that way, says Boltanski, the sound of a beating heart becomes a symbol of life to oppose time's passage to oblivion. The recordings will be protected from the ravages of time on the privately-owned island of Teshima in the Inland Seto Sea in Japan. So long after I'm gone, descendants not yet born can go to Teshima and ask for me by name. I'll be there ticking away in a kind of techno immortality.
Immersing myself in the installation, I walked back and forth contemplating the profound questions wordlessly posed by this monumental exhibit. I must admit, however, that every now and then, my attention was grabbed by a particularly attractive coat or sweater. Could I just take one? They belong, after all, to everyone and, at the same time, to no one. 

Afterwards I learned that the clothes, in fact, belong to a recycling company and will be returned when the exhibit closes at the end of February. The 400 metal poles and the lamps also will be recycled.  "There must be nothing left of the exhibition," says Boltanski 

Personnes has attracted a lot of attention in Paris and everyone has an opinion on its meaning and worth. As I was leaving, however, I overheard somebody make what may well be the definitive comment on the exhibit:  
"Le néant, c'est tres à la mode à ce moment." 
"Nothingness is very fashionable right now!"

To see more photos, click here.
To find modern art in Paris, click here.


                                                            A bientôt,


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


  1. Wow! What a fascinating exhibit you described here, Geraldine. I love the notion of the heartbeats, and I admit to laughing out loud to read your comment about the sweaters here at the end of your post. Thanks for sharing that with us. What an interesting installation.

  2. Pretty wonderful. Wish it were staying into April. Thanks.

  3. Geraldine--
    I have just discovered your blog, thanks to Adrien Leeds (Parler Paris). I love France and also love Ann Arbor, where I lived on Brookwood Street (near Packard) as a child! I have only been back there one time. Your beautiful photos of Ann Arbor brought back fond memories of the city of Ann Arbor, with its beautiful trees, sidewalks made for skating and bike riding, and the lovely buildings of the U. of M. Thanks! jr
    in San Diego


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