Seeking immortality in a garden
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