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Monument (Odessa)

Christian Boltanski (French, b. 1944)

Monument (Odessa), 1989-2003

  • Gelatin silver prints, tin biscuit boxes, lights, and wire
  • Installation approximately: 80 x 72 in. (203.2 x 182.9 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Melva Bucksbaum Contemporary Art Fund, 2003-11a-kk
  • ¬©Courtesy of the Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

Not on view

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Monument (Odessa)

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Monument (Odessa)

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This installation is one of a group of works that Christian Boltanski calls his "Monuments" series. In this particular piece, Boltanski has appropriated a snapshot of Jewish students in France in 1939. He has reproduced and enlarged their individual faces and combined them with tin biscuit boxes and incandescent bulbs. The design suggests an altar, with the electric lights substituting for votive candles. The slightly unfocused, anonymous faces of the children convey the transience of life and a collective consciousness of the dead. At the same time, Boltanski challenges our capacity to truly capture the past. Can photographs really reclaim lost lives? Does memory allow us to return to the past or merely to mourn its loss?

The reference to Odessa in the title recalls the birthplace of the artist's paternal grandfather. He says, "My work is about the fact of dying, but it's not about the Holocaust itself." However, having grown up in postwar France with the knowledge of his father having hidden in fear during the occupation, Boltanski was never far removed from the reality of genocide.

Knowing the religion of the children in this work and the year in which they were photographed inevitably links them to the Holocaust and evokes thoughts about their unknown fate. The lights illuminating their images thus suggest another interpretation--namely, Yahrzeit candles to honor and remember the dead. The empty, rusted tin biscuit boxes, a fixture in Boltanski's works, hold more than childhood treasures and memories--they hold the unwritten histories of unrealized lives.