Seek­ing im­mor­tal­ity in a gar­den

The Herald - Arts - - VISUAL ART - SARAH UR­WIN JONES Chris­tian Boltan­ski, Jupiter Art­land, Bon­ning­ton House Steadings, Wilkieston, Ed­in­burgh 01506 889900, www. jupit­er­art­ Un­til Sept 25 Daily 10am–5pm; Sept, Thurs – Sun 10am–5pm

THE ze­bra finches of Celeste Bour­sier-Mougenot’s gui­tar-strum­ming “From Here to Ear” have flown from Jupiter Art­land’s Steadings gallery, hope­fully for some vast and pleas­ant aviary far from the thrum of elec­tric basses, va­cat­ing the premises for work by French artist Chris­tian Boltan­ski.

Boltan­ski, 71, is al­ways thought­pro­vok­ing, his strongly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal work med­i­tat­ing on the na­ture of what is be­yond death, specif­i­cally his own. In­ti­mately con­cerned with mor­tal­ity and im­mor­tal­ity, Boltan­ski has been recre­at­ing and de­vel­op­ing his the­sis for a num­ber of years.

Boltan­ski’s first ma­jor com­mis­sion in the UK, Anim­i­tas, the new per­ma­nent in­stal­la­tion at Jupiter, is first seen from a dis­tance, a cu­ri­ous flash­ing of lights in broad day­light across the field, or from the top of one of Charles Jenck’s land­forms. In­stalled on the small is­land in the duck­pond within sight of the main house, it can be heard too, although not un­til much closer in. A tin­kling man­made echo, of sorts, of the sound of the wind in the trees, it is a scat­ter­ing of tiny bells mounted on rods of dif­fer­ing heights, the bell clap­pers at­tached to plas­tic sheets that catch the wind.

Boltan­ski orig­i­nally in­stalled Anim­i­tas in a spot in the Ata­cama desert noted for both its view of the night stars and as a place where peo­ple were “dis­ap­peared” un­der Gen­eral Pinochet. The word refers to the road-side shrines of Chile. The work has been made in other places since then, although given that the lay­out of bells is that of the stars on the night the artist was born, there’s a rather less weighty poignancy to plac­ing it on an is­land in the mid­dle of a duck­pond to its orig­i­nal desert in­stal­la­tion. And the sound is ethe­real, although, as Boltan­ski joked to own­ers Nicky and Robert Wil­son at the open­ing, it might start to grate af­ter 40-odd years of liv­ing with it.

An­other un­in­hab­ited Boltan­ski is­land is in the Steadings gallery. Les Ar­chives du Coeur, fre­quently re­vis­ited by the artist, has a cer­tain air about it, but un­for­tu­nately wasn’t work­ing when I went round on the open­ing af­ter­noon. In the mid­dle of the room, a some­what omi­nous metal box, a bit like a lift re­lo­cated into an empty room but ac­tu­ally the means of re­al­iz­ing the rather spooky no­tion of hav­ing your heart­beat recorded to al­low it to echo, along with many hun­dred thou­sand oth­ers, around Teshima, an un­in­hab­ited is­land in Ja­pan. How much do you want im­mor­tal­ity, Boltan­ski seems to ask, and will this do?

It all be­came rather less omi­nous as a queue formed, jok­ing about dodgy hearts as the “lift” door partly opened to re­veal a flus­tered man in a white coat bend­ing over a com­puter pulling at wires – the hand of god re­vealed a lit­tle like Toto pulling back the cur­tain on the Wizard of Oz. Ap­par­ently the vis­i­tor wait­ing to have his heart­beat recorded in­side the box had in­quired, po­litely, of the flus­tered tech­ni­cian if he’d tried “turn­ing it off and turn­ing it on again”. The tech­ni­cian fled.

And it turns out, any­way, that Teshima, where th­ese heart­beats will ul­ti­mately be stored, isn’t un­in­hab­ited at all, although the no­tion of record­ing your heart­beat for pos­ter­ity still spooks. There is some­thing, al­most, of the soul­steal­ing in this. The false no­tion of pos­ter­ity and im­mor­tal­ity. If you could go to the is­land and re­quest to hear the heart­beat of some­one you loved, would it com­fort you? There is some­thing here of our no­tions of the be­yond, of our re­fusal to ac­cept our lim­ited span, of the empti­ness and the fi­nal­ity of death. Of heart­beats locked-in and sound­ing for­ever – or at least un­til the next tech­ni­cal fault – in the ear phones of tourists pass­ing through. Worse still, of sound­ing into the empty heart of a com­puter.

Nearby, and thank­fully re­ly­ing on noth­ing more than the move­ment of air and the flick of a switch to en­sure its suc­cess, The Theatre des Om­bres (an on­go­ing Boltan­ski se­ries) is won­der­fully me­di­ae­val, a peek-a-boo in­stal­la­tion of dance of death shadow pup­pets jit­ter­ing in the air, their shad­ows danc­ing on the walls of the dark­ened, closed-off room be­hind. The vi­su­al­iza­tion of a hid­den re­cess of the mind.

Chris­tian Boltan­ski un­veils his first per­ma­nent work in the UK at Jupiter Art­land Pho­to­graph: Steven Scott Tay­lor/Alamy Live News

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