Research Point: Christian Boltanski – Personnes installation (2010)



From HLGfilms, at: (Accessed 11/08/2017)

Not having visited the installation in Paris in 2010 I found really useful to look at videos on YouTube to get at least an idea of how it was.

1. I shall first try a schematic analysis using the terms set out at the start of Project 3.

Personnes is an ART installation set up at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2010, conceived as a TEMPORARY  grandiose anonymous memorial by Christian Boltanski (1944), a French artist, photographer and film maker (At:, accessed 11/08/2017).

It was a LARGE SCALE visual and sound installation, which took up the enormous space of the Nave at the Grand Palais, the largest glass roof in Europe (At:, accessed 11/08/2017).

At the time of the installation the empty grandiose space of the Nave was TRANSFORMED into an imaginary regular array of encampments and/or collective cemetery of crowds of anonymous people symbolically represented by layers of discarded clothes and objects laid out on the floor. The installation was conceived as a deeply moving IMMERSIVE experience for visitors who were able to move along the areas which REPEATED themselves monotously throughout the space in a square PATTERN.

Laura Cumming in The Guardian has a review of the installation at the Grand Palais (At:, accessed 11/08/2017)

Also Adrian Searle wrote a review of the exhibition (Accessed 12/08/2017).
2. Some thoughts about the installation

  • The echoing sound of human heartbeats, with its rhythmic and continuous thuds, never leaves the visitors during their moving across the vast space of the Nave. Boltanski even invites all who come in to record their own heart rhythms in dedicated booths, adding to an archive he is compiling of all the world’s heartbeats. I think that this is a very powerful idea that creates a strong emotional bond between the living and the dead, implying that we all share the same destiny: those who are dead were once living, those that are living shall be dead. We all belong together. This gives the work a universal value across places and across times.
  • All those discarded clothes, thousands of them lying down on the floor in grids, orderly so, face down, as if in anonymous graves of a cemetery or in some other somber disposition like corpses after a terrorist attack or another tragic event, are terribly unsettling in the absence of all those who wore them. As visitors we can walk around, looking at an old coat here, a  children’s sweater there, pick up a garishly coloured dress, or a skirt and tenderly wonder who wore it, imagining a person and a life behind it. So these forlorn clothes in all their emptiness stand for people, are those people, those clothes have more than a symbolic value, are more than symbols, and we look at them as if they were people, they are so to say a metaphor of people.
  • The installation title makes sense only in French, because ‘personne’ means a ‘person’ but also ‘no person’, ‘nobody’. So it indicates at the same time the presence of people and their absence. The absence is given by the anonymity that death confers to people. The mechanical grabber is a second powerful metaphor, that strengthens and confirms this vision of human absence: Boltanski has said that he equates the grabber  to the ‘indifferent hand of God’ which randomly picks up somebody like an old cloth and then lets it drop again, just as casually.
  • I associate this grandiose installation to the memento mori and vanitas paintings dealt with in Part 1 of this course. The scale is evidently very different and Personnes offers the visitors a multi-sensorial immersive experience involving them in several ways, but the inspiration has some elements in common. However, in Boltanski’s work there is also a human pietas, a compassion for our common destiny that seems to be absent from vanitas paintings. On a more emotional personal level, my thought goes to the crowds of migrants which cross seas and lands in search of rescue and survival, letting behind families, houses, belongings and often finding an anonymous death along the way.

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