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.

Exercise 1: Marianne Straub’s moquette textile considered from a Visual Communications point of view

Exercise 1 invites to think back at work done on Visual Communications in Part Three and consider what communicative function Straub’s textile is serving in this context.

I think that, beyond providing something durable to sit on while using public transportation, in this specific case the upholstery primarily served the purpose of creating a strong visual brand identity for the London transportation system, and consequently to generate in passengers an emotional response and association with it.

This was not always so: from a very interesting document of 2011 that I found online, ‘Reports of Society Meetings: Seat Moquette – Past, Present and Future’ by Harriet Wallace Jones and Emma Sewell of Wallace Sewell with Mike Ashworth of London Underground (At:, accessed 10/08/2017) I learnt that originally on public transport seats were often made of wood or of woven cane, being these materials hard-wearing, light and hygienic. It was mainly because of increased competition from other bus and tram services with more comfortable seats that a textile upholstery was considered.

But for a long time the seats were covered with all sorts of patterned fabrics, with no preoccupation for consistency. It was only in the 60s that the concept of a uniform design fir the whole fleet emerged and contributed to establish a brand identity for London Transport, and I think that the use of the same visually appealing moquette with pleasant tactile qualities brought with it also other messages to passengers: London Transport is dependable and trustworthy in its service and takes care that passengers stay comfortable and warm and have an enjoyable travelling experience. The choice of a moquette textile seems also particularly suited to a relatively cold city such as London, whereas it would be odd in a hot town like Rome where I live.

The analogous blue/green colour scheme is lively and fresh, dynamic and energetic but not disquietingly or excessively so: being next to each other on the colour wheel, blue and green are harmonious and pleasing to the eye and can evoke serene natural images of water and foliage. The abstract geometric pattern has a certain Bauhaus flair – understandably so since Marianne Straub had studied art at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich where she had as tutor Heinz Otto Hürlimann (At:, accessed 11/08/2017) – and is neat and crisp without being busy or distracting. With its straight lines the pattern may perhaps be connected also with the grid-like plan of transportation but maybe this is unintentional or far-fetched.

So I think that all in all Straub’s moquette textile may bring with it connotations such as an emotional identification with the brand, feelings of warmness, cosiness, care and comfort, and a serene general pleasingness to the eye and the touch.

Research Point: Marianne Straub, Moquette textile (1970)


From: (Accessed 10/08/2017)

This is an original sample of the moquette textile designed by Marianne Straub in 1967 and made by Firth Furnishings in Yorkshire which was in use as seat upholstery during the 70s on London buses/Underground trains/British Rail carriages .

Key evaluating criteria as according to Creative Arts Today terminology on pages 199-200:

DESIGN: functional machine-produced textile from Straub’s original design first developed on a handloom (, accessed 10/08/2017).

Although she became a leading name in industrial design – creating upholstery for everything from London Underground to BEA aircraft – she almost always developed her ideas on a handloom before applying her technical knowhow to their manufacture. She believed that if more designers tried out their ideas first, there would be fewer bad results.[4]

PERMANENT: it was meant to be very durable, with anti-stain and stain-hiding qualities

SMALL/LARGE SCALE: according to the intended use

DEFINING: defines the bus/carriage/train as belonging to the public transport system

IMMERSIVE/DISTANT: passengers are in close contact, at the same time the patterning can be observed from a distance

PATTERN/COLOUR/REPETITION: the blue/green colour scheme repeats itself throughout as a pattern



Research Point: Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Clouds (2008)


Image from: (Accessed 9/08/2017)

With the project Clouds (2008) by the designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec in collaboration with Kvadrat we see a totally different context for the use of textiles: DESIGN instead of art.

The tile system allows for the creation of connectable three-dimensional structures resembling clouds that can be freely and easily extended in all directions by everyone thanks to the simple yet clever assembling solution. Their possible uses are many: dividing space, as installation pieces hanging from the ceiling or a wall, free-standing sculptural pieces. They can be arranged and rearranged at wish in new TEMPORARY designs.

The elements can be both LARGE SCALE or SMALL SCALE depending on the dimensions, they can TRANSFORM or FORM spaces. They allow both for an IMMERSIVE experience since the user can personally choose how to connect the tiles and for a DISTANT one when assembled and observed from far. Being made of textiles, they are SOFT and WARM to the touch, FLEXIBLE within limits, and have SOUND ABSORBING qualities.

More information on the system can be obtained from: (Accessed 9/08/2017) (Accessed 9/08/2017)

Research Point: Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room (1998)

Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) produced her first Infinity Mirror Room, Phalli’s Field, back in 1965 when she had the idea to use mirrors to transform her paintings and drawings into three-dimensional, perceptive and immersive ‘rooms’.

From: (Accessed 9/08/2017)
From: Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors | Arts | NPR.

This short video is a presentation of six of her Infinity Mirror Rooms, as part of a retrospective of her 65-year career, on exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., Feb. 23–May 14, 2017.
Since 1965 she has created more than twenty different Infinity Mirror Rooms, all of them sharing the same basic criteria as identified by Creative Arts Today (pages 199-200).
The Rooms can be described as:

ART: all of them are installation works and perceptive experiences

TEMPORARY: they are shown in temporary site-specific exhibitions

LARGE SCALE: they constitute whole ‘environments’

TRANSFORMING: they transform the perception of spaces

IMMERSIVE: they create immersive, emotional rooms which visitors can touch and explore

PATTERN and COLOUR and REPETITION: they all make an obsessive use of repeated coloured patterns that completely permeate spaces and surfaces.

To understand the artistic background and inspiration of this artist it may be very useful to listen and look at some interviews with her. Here are a couple of links:

Research Point: Textiles in context – Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Surrounded Islands, 1980-83

This is a very well known installation by the artist couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude and it has been interesting to look at this work more in depth on their website. (Accessed 5/08/2017)

Eleven islands in Biscayne Bay were surrounded for two weeks ‘with 6.5 million square feet (603,870 square meters) of floating pink woven polypropylene fabric covering the surface of the water and extending out 200 feet (61 meters) from each island into the bay. The fabric was sewn into 79 patterns to follow the contours of the 11 islands’ covering an area of around 11 square kilometers. The artists write that ‘the luminous pink color of the shiny fabric was in harmony with the tropical vegetation of the uninhabited verdant islands, the light of the Miami sky and the colors of the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay.’

This extremely ambitious project was made possible only by a three-year preparation work that included not only obtaining the permits from several governmental agencies but also the involvement and cooperation of attorneys, marine biologists, ornithologists, mammal experts, marine engineers and others plus a builder-contractor to execute the works.

Finally, ‘on May 4, 1983, out of a total work force of 430, the unfurling crew began to blossom the pink fabric. Surrounded Islands was tended day and night by 120 monitors in inflatable boats.’ (

As an article of the New York Times said Surrounded Islands was a ‘major exercise in ephemerality’ (, accessed on 5/08/2017). After two weeks the installation was dismantled and only survives in drawings, photos and films.

I personally find the preliminary drawings particularly beautiful and informative. Here is one of them, many others are to be found on their website:

Christo Surrounded Islands (Project for Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida) Drawing 1982 in two parts Pencil, charcoal, pastel, wax crayon, enamel paint, aerial photograph and fabric sample 15 x 96″ and 42 x 96″ (38 x 244 cm and 106.6 x 244 cm) Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1982 Christo Ref. # 36

I agree with the analysis by Creative Arts Today that this installation like other works by these artists both defines and covers aspects of the natural environment: island shapes are echoed and highlighted by their fabric envelopes and the effect is perhaps that of marking off their borders and differences from the rest of the environment. I do think that islands have been always perceived as very special places in collective imagination, places of separateness but at the same time places of desire for connections and communications with the mainland. Also  they are surrounded by water, another very complex symbol.
It seems to me that this separation/connection relationship is vigorously underlined by the surrounding pink rings of fabric.

Wrapped Trees, 1998 (Accessed 6/08/2017)

Wrapped Trees is a project of 1998 which involved the temporary wrapping of 178 trees with woven polyester fabric of the kind used to protect trees from frost and snow and 23 kilometres of rope, which took place in the park surrounding the Beyeler foundation near Basel, in Switzerland.

Like Surrounded Islands, also this project was made possible by the cooperation of several experts and involved eight simultaneous teams of climbers, tree pruners and workers.

Using the criteria proposed I would define this work as:

ART: it’s an installation work

TEMPORARY: the trees were wrapped for a limited time, from November 28th to December 14th 1998

LARGE SCALE: it extended from the park around the Fondation Beyeler, in the adjacent meadow as well as along the creek of Berower Park, northeast of Basel, at the German border

DEFINING: it defined the underlying structure of the trees

IMMERSIVE: it was possible to walk from tree to tree

SHAPE: the main focus of interest were the shapes and the volumes of the individual trees

Wrapped Trees, Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park, Riehen, Switzerland, 1997-98

Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Wrapped Trees, Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park, Riehen, Switzerland, 1997-98
Photo: Wolfgang Volz
© 1998 Christo


Wrapped Trees (Project for Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park, Riehen, Switzerland)

Christo Wrapped Trees (Project for Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park, Riehen, Switzerland) Collage 1998 in two parts Pencil, fabric, twine, charcoal, wax crayon, fabric sample and map 12 x 30 1/2″ and 26 1/4 x 30 1/2″ (30.5 x 77.5 cm and 66.7 x 77.5 cm) Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1998 Christo Ref. # 12

The artists’ website has beautiful images of this project and looking at the work from the point of view of the textile rather than the trees these are my first thoughts:

  • the use of fabric or textile is in keeping with the fragility and temporal character of the work,  as the artists say
  • with its flexibility and drapeability fabric can be used to create sculptures as in this project
  • notwithstanding its fragility, fabric can also be long-lasting like trees
  • the translucency of the particular fabric used sculpturally underlines the shapes, their lights and shadows
  • its transparency allows to see the branches and foliage underneath, so the fabric both  hides and reveals
  • the individual fabric sculptures create an impressive installation as a whole
  • the fabric moves with the wind so the effect is naturally dynamic and evolving as the trees


Research Point: Textiles in context – Zaha Hadid

Serpentine Sackler Gallery extension (2013), in London’s Kensington Gardens


Images from: (Accessed 2/08/2017)

Information from: (Accessed 2/08/2017) (Accessed 2/08/2017) (Accessed 2/08/2017)

Like the MAXXI Museum in Rome, this project combines old and new, in this case an historic building – a 19th century brick gunpowder store – and an undulating tensile structure designed by architect Zaha Hadid to be used as a café/restaurant and social space.

The extension is made of a glass-fibre textile and forms an organic-looking white canopy that ‘grows’ from the original building.

Zaha Hadid has used textiles architecturally also in other projects, for example in the temporary structure created for the JS Bach Chamber Music Hall in Manchester (2009) in which a continuous ribbon of translucent fabric stretched over a steel structure suspended from the ceiling and enveloped both performers and audience in a common, fluid space.

Many other architects and designers have  made an architectural use of textiles, both for temporary and permanent structures, even if not always with such beautiful results. The examples are many, so it’s only possible to scrape the surface in this short post. These structures can be collectively named textile architecture.

At The Politecnico di Milano a Textile Architecture Network has been established in 2011 by a group of researchers whose main goal is that of sharing knowledge and promoting the development of lightweight constructions – tensile, inflatable systems, FRP in general – in architecture to improve the building environment from the quality and sustainability point of view (At:

They also have a database of projects that show the state of the art of membrane and fabric architecture all over the world and that can be used by architects and engineers.

On the website of the German-Swiss-Latvian company MDT Membrane Design and Technique (At: I found an image with drawings of the basic ways in which textile structures can be designed to serve different purposes:


From: (Accessed 2/08/2017)

This is not ‘art’ or ‘architecture’ but it can be useful as a starting point for designing architectural membrane structures.

Eye Beacon pavilion, Amsterdam, designed by UNStudio, Amsterdam, partner of MDT-tex, is an example of their work.
The structure consists of two cube forms connected to one another by twisting surfaces. All surfaces of the pavilion are constructed from tensile textile modules that together create a pattern of openings and reveal glimpses of the interior. (At:


One of the great masters of tensile structures was the German architect Otto Frei (1925-2015) who was a pioneer in the use of lightweight tensile and membrane structures, including the roof of the Olympic Stadium in Munich for the 1972 Summer Olympics.

File:Munich - Frei Otto Tensed structures - 5320.jpg

Frei Otto Tensed structures for the Munich 72 Olympic Games. Olympic Stadium and park. Munich Germany (photo © Jorge Royan / / CC BY-SA 3.0 


Photo from: (Accessed 3/08/2017)

The Guardian has an interesting article on him, which explains how Otto Frei has inspired ‘everything from the Millennium Dome to pleasure-domes in Kazakhstan and service stations all over the world.’

Roof for the Multihalle in Mannheim, Germany.

Roof for the Multihalle in Mannheim, Germany.
Photograph: Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn

Image from:

For his projects he often drew inspiration from the study of natural forms,

taking a great interest in the development of soap bubbles:


He studied also architectural primitive forms, from Mongolian yurts to tribal tepees:

His work has greatly influenced the work of several British architects who use tensile fabrics in their work, such as Richard Rogers’ Millennium Dome


Millennium Dome 1.jpg

Richard Rogers, Millennium Dome (2000), Greenwich Peninsula in South East London

Image from:

or Michael Hopkins’ Schlumberger Centre and many others.

The Schlumberger Cambridge Research Centre (1985) was one of Hopkins’ earliest buildings and shows the use of a suspended, high-tech, fabric roof

Image from: