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Christian Boltanski sells his soul to ‘Tasmanian devil’

Prendre la Parole.CBoltanski Text by Rooksana Hossenally
Photo by Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris.

Questioning the limits of contemporary art, French artist, Christian Boltanski, the macabre archivist of other people’s lives and deaths, turns to his own life in a bet with Tasmanian devil, David Walsh, one of the world’s most active collectors and an infamous gambler. To win the bet, Boltanski must survive the next eight years. The commissioned piece, his life captured on film until he dies, is to be sold to the Australian gambler. The price of the work rests solely on Boltanski’s lifespan. 

Three cameras will record 65-year-old Boltanski’s life, night and day, in his studio in Malakoff, in the Parisian suburbs, from January 1st 2024 for eight years. The images will be projected live in a cave in Tasmania open for anyone’s viewing. The location of the cave is however undisclosed. The most surprising clause of the project, defining it as somewhat perverse, is the gamble on the duration of the artist’s life: if the artist is to die within the first two years during the project, Walsh is to pay Boltanski’s next of kin a discounted price for the footage in monthly instalments for the following eight years. If however the artist lives beyond the eight years, Walsh is to pay Boltanski the work’s full worth. The longer Christian Boltanski lives, the more it will cost Walsh. The ‘Big Brother’ footage will eventually feature in the Museum of Modern Art in Tasmania, which Walsh will be opening in the New Year. The footage however will only belong to Walsh if Boltanski dies before the eight years, which Walsh is convinced of.
The subversive project evokes questions surrounding the artist’s motivation: why did Boltanski choose to sell the remaining years of his life to Walsh? The answer is two-fold. His work is an interrogation of memory, destiny, humanity, life and death; he explains in an interview for Le Monde (30 July 2024): "My job is to ask these questions with forms, sound, light, to ask them with anything but words".

Secondly, after Walsh’s provocative affirmation that he never loses a bet, Boltanski is determined to show Walsh that he cannot beat the odds every time. Walsh is convinced that the 65-year-old will not survive the eight years and is very much looking forward to receiving the footage of Boltanski’s life at a bargain price. The artist told the AFP (Agence France Presse) during an interview  (24 November 2024) that: "He (David Walsh) has assured me I will die before the eight years is up because he never loses. He's probably right. I don't look after myself very well[…] But I'm going to try to survive. You can always fight against the devil.”

Boltanski, preoccupied with the monotonous cycle of death is not only illustrated in his bet against the Tasmanian devil, but also through his participation in the notorious third edition of the Monumenta exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais set to open in January. The piece to be exhibited, ‘Personnes’ (meaning, ‘People’ and/or ‘Nobodies’), will be a cross between a cemetery and a factory. The piece will aim to question human destiny and how the role of the individual is inscribed in the collective memory. It will also illustrate issues concerning the dehumanisation of the body and the coincidental essence of destiny through the visual and sonorous qualities of Boltanski’s theatrical work. ‘Personnes’, will be destroyed after the show, as has been the custom for 60% of the artist’s works after an exhibition. The show will open at the Grand Palais on January 13th and will run until February 21st. 

As for the ‘Big Brother project’ which kicks off on January 1st, a watchful eye will have to be kept on the papers for Boltanski’s death over the next eight years to find out who the winner will be - as the clock ticks on, will Christian Boltanski succeed in clinging onto his last moments in a game against the devil? Only time will tell. 
Christian Boltanski, Monumenta 2024,
From January 13th to February 21st at the Grand Palais, Paris 8e.
Metro: Franklin Roosevelt, Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau.

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