Christian Boltanski was born in France in 1944. He had no formal training as an artist, and began painting as a teenager. Since the late 1960s his work has often taken the form of archives that blur the distinction between truth and fiction. He lives and works in Paris.
Christian Boltanski explores themes of memory, identity, absence, death and loss, often using a blend of real and fabricated documents.
The photographs used in this work were collected from the obituary columns of Swiss newspapers. Though the accompanying texts have been removed, obliterating the identities of the subjects, this is nevertheless a memorial to them.
The repetitive arrangement of identical elements on shelves suggests that this could be just a part of an almost infinite archive, a reminder of the countless human beings who have lived and died, and of the ultimate anonymity of death. More specifically, some commentators have seen references to the Holocaust in the work. The shroud-like draperies woven around the shelves enhance the funereal effect. Spotlights shining on each photograph focus attention on every individual, but also create a sinister atmosphere of interrogation and torture.
There is an element of black humour in the artist’s choice of subject matter, however. The Swiss, he says, are ‘naturally healthy’, and yet, ‘are dying all the time . just like everybody’. In the title, the word ‘reserve’ refers to Switzerland’s banking economy, suggesting that when the Swiss die, they quite naturally end up in a bank vault. But the reference again touches on the Holocaust. In 1995, after this work was made, it was revealed that the notorious secrecy of Swiss banks was being used to cover up the existence of the frozen accounts of Holocaust victims. Boltanski has given another explanation of this piece: ‘I suppose part of the work is also about the simple fascination of seeing somebody who is handsome and imagining his ashes.’