Reflection, Atmosphere and
the Crisis of Art Appreciation
in the Social Media Era
Christian Boltanski: Storage Memory
Power Station of Art, Shanghai
25.04.18 – 08.07.18
Translated by Duncan Hewitt
Christian Boltanski’s Shanghai solo show, Storage Memory, is distinguished by its ‘reflective nature and atmosphere’. These distinctive characteristics reveal – from the three perspectives of the artist, art history and the audience – the problems facing contemporary art: the crisis of art appreciation in the social ( media ) era, and three types of contradiction.
At first glance, Boltanski’s works and the way the exhibition is staged seem to present a frightening experience. Although the types of material he employs to make his works are varied – for example, the dead people’s clothes piled up in a mound, the black and white photographs of babies or the old biscuit tins in the form of an altar – they all use similar motifs, and create a gloomy, dark, even terrifying mood in the venue.
The motifs of the artist’s work relate to death and fate, and in particular to the traumas humanity has suffered as a result of historical and political disasters. The tons of dead people’s clothes piled up into a mound are a metaphor for the victims of Nazi concentration camps, while the crane, which symbolises fate, grabs the clothes then drops them again, as if the Jews, who see themselves as God’s chosen people, are being tossed into hell by Hitler and the hand of history. On a conveyor belt on a large scaffolding frame, the black and white photos of babies circulate constantly, suggesting that the fate of these infants – who are born equal, whose appearance is not yet distinct, and whose eyes are heavy with sleep – is entirely decided by unknown quantities and chance, which are as indifferent as a machine.
Photographs of victims of the Second World War, displayed in the style of a Christian triptych, are placed on an altar made by stacking up old biscuit tins and other similar everyday items; the faces of the people in the photos have been blurred by the artist, so it’s very hard to distinguish their specific individual features. This is precisely because, in a massacre, death is everyone’s death – this is a denunciation of the fact that, in a massacre, death is universal and inevitable, a denunciation of its indiscriminate nature.
Behind Boltanski’s Storage Memory and the terrifying experience it brings us, from his early works to his most recent – whether photographic, installation or video works, and regardless of their size, from tiny little metal figurines to a tall crane – all are characterised by sombre and mournful reflection. On the one hand there is contemplation of his childhood experiences, but it also reflects the mood of post-war Europe. More than this, however, it reflects the contradictions of modern art.
When the modernist painter Édouard Manet reproduced postures, structure and certain details from Titian in his work, he established his own art on the logic of art and painting itself, and displayed the modernist’s characteristic sense of individuality and love of knowledge – particularly by basing his art on archive material. Like the modernists, Boltanski, through his appropriation of the triptych, the altar and the everyday biscuit box, and by adopting the construction of atmosphere associated with minimalist sculpture, can also be said to have based his artistic form on art history and tradition.
At the same time, the themes of Boltanski’s work, and even the vast quantities of materials he uses in his creative process, include elements that go beyond artistic aesthetics and the ‘art for art’s sake’ formula that was the goal of the modernists – and indeed may even contradict them. Rather than focusing purely on aesthetic pleasure and visual aspects, there are reflections on historical disasters, political issues and destiny. In Boltanski’s works, these form an underlying, basic foundation of meaning.
In fact, this ‘contradiction’ also suggests the contradiction between the artist’s use of emotions and experiences in his creative approach, and his desire to use serious rationality to reflect on his work. The construction of atmosphere ( or to put it another way, ‘theatricality’ ) is actually a classic expression of this contradiction.
By means of creating an atmosphere ( theatricality ), the artist brings the audience a sense of terror and depression, thus highlighting social ( non-artistic ) issues such as historical and political disasters, as the subject of rational reflection. This type of approach has attracted criticism, but ‘criticism of theatricality’ in itself also reveals a certain ‘contradiction of criticism’. The lighting in the gallery for Storage Memory is dim, and the huge photographs of people and old clothes float in mid-air like ghosts, sending a chill of fear down the spines of visitors.
Such theatricality – as associated with minimalist sculpture – was criticised by Michael Fried in the 1960s.1 The critique of theatricality holds that the audience’s presence at the exhibition is like that of the audience in a theatre – they gain a sense of experience through their interaction with their surroundings, rather than purely from focusing on the visual aspect; it argues that this type of theatrical atmosphere is not purely art – it is a means of highlighting the artistic aspects, of encouraging people to appreciate art.
For Boltanski, however, creating a depressing atmosphere and environment is designed precisely to enable more people – in particular, ordinary members of the public – to discover the rational reflection behind the emotional experience. Yet paradoxically, it’s precisely because of the exhibition’s powerful atmosphere that the works – from the giant mound of clothes and the giant drapes showing human figures and human eyes, to the neon light tube installation with the messages ‘start’ and ‘stop’ – have all become ‘famous tourist sights’ for the audience to take photographs and selfies in front of. This contradiction may seem highly ironic: an artist reflects painfully on the tragedies of humanity, racking his brains in an attempt to create a work which, thanks to its emotional approach, will awaken the audience’s profound reflection – yet in the end it becomes a place to check in on social media, take group photos and upload social media posts. To put it rather more simply, the artist originally hoped, by creating a sense of depression, darkness and fear, to awaken the audience’s reflections on, or memories of, history, politics and destiny – but it has become more of a backdrop for checking in, taking group photos, and editing and showing off pictures. Thus the ‘memory’ of travel and social media has obscured the memory of history and disasters.
In this case, ‘the critique of theatricality’ is not without reason. However, criticism of ‘theatricality’ faces another problem: on the one hand, artworks or exhibitions that do not seek to create an atmosphere but prefer to emphasise focus – such as exhibitions of modernist masters – cannot, in the social media era, actually avoid the fate of becoming locations for ‘checking in’. On the other hand, if you don’t create an atmosphere, you are effectively voluntarily giving up on making use of emotions – perception and feelings – which are the brain’s faster, more direct operating system to attract people’s attention, and thus promote the rational and reflective cognitive system. Cognitive science has shown that emotions or feelings are one of the dual-process models of cognition.2
Thus, from the perspective of art history and art criticism, the second kind of contradiction – epitomised by Storage Memory and the creation of atmosphere – is the contradiction of the critique of theatricality, and the creation of atmosphere itself. It is not theatricality that has damaged artistry – at the most, it has accelerated its erosion. Yet at the same time theatricality is also an effective means of attracting attention.
Boltanski uses emotional experience and the construction of an atmosphere to communicate his rational reflection on themes such as history, politics and destiny. Yet the critique of theatricality criticises the creation of atmosphere; this demonstrates the contradictions within this critique itself, but also, and more importantly, suggests that this critique may have neglected a bigger contradiction and crisis, one which is more fundamental – the crisis of art appreciation in the social media era. Artists use emotional and experiential methods to display rational reflection ( which conforms to cognitive and biological mechanisms ) in order to attract the audience’s attention; yet the audience’s attention has been affected by the mechanism of online social media, thus undermining the emotional expression of serious reflection ( theatricality ).
This means that no form of art is powerful enough to resist being eroded by the visual mechanism of social media. If we can say that, in the critique of theatricality, critics ( mistakenly ) see focus and artistic autonomy as the victims of atmosphere, then we can see from Boltanski’s Storage Memory that ‘theatricality’, or atmosphere ( and the historical reflection that lies behind them ), are themselves the greater ‘victims’ of this era and its visual mechanism.
Consequently, one of the important tasks for artists and critics, rather than pointing the finger at specific aspects of artistic creation – such as whether there should be any atmosphere, or how much atmosphere – is to focus on a question that is more deserving of reflection: While seeking, as far as is possible, to attract the greatest number of viewers to engage in reflection – by means of feeling and appreciating the artworks and exhibition – can we also, to the greatest extent possible, resist the erosion of art’s unique character by the visual mechanism of this era? In other words, at a time when various visual mechanisms, such as that of the social media era, have eroded the audience from every angle, how can we preserve, to the greatest extent, aesthetic judgement and emotional response in the appreciation of art, without losing rational and critical function? If we don’t do this, the various contradictions revealed by Storage Memory will result not only in a crisis of art appreciation, but also in a fatal crisis for art itself.
1. Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’ ( 1967 ), in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, pp. 148 – 72.
2. See Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011; Jonathan St. B. T. Evans and Keith E. Stanovich, ‘Dual-Process Theories of Higher Cognition: Advancing the Debate’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 8, no. 3 ( 2013 ), pp. 223 – 41.
2018 年4 月25 日—2018 年7 月8 日
波尔坦斯基的上海个展“忆所”，呈现出“反思性和氛围”特征， 它们从艺术家、艺术史和观众三个维度揭示了当代艺术所面临的问题: 社交时代的艺术鉴赏危机和三重矛盾。
初看之下，波尔坦斯基的作品和个展现场均体现出一种恐惧式的体验感。尽管其创作材料多元，比如从堆积成山的死人衣裤、黑白婴儿照、到祭台状的旧饼干盒，却因相似的母题，给展览现场营造出一种的阴郁、黑暗乃至恐惧感。艺术家的创作母题围绕死亡、命运，尤其是历史和政治灾难所带给人类的创伤展开。成吨的死人衣裤堆积成山，寓意着纳粹集中营遇难者，而象征命运的起重机抓举衣裤并抛下，仿佛自诩为上帝选民的犹太人被希特勒，也被历史之手抛入地狱; 黑白婴儿照，在大型脚手架的传送带上不断运转，预示着出生平等、面容未定和睡眼蒙胧的婴孩， 其命运统统由机器般冷漠的未知和偶然决定;二战的遇难者照片， 以基督教三联画形式，放在用旧饼干盒这类日常物堆砌而成的祭台上，照片中的人，面容经艺术家模糊处理，所以很难辨别他们的具体个人特征，这恰恰是因为在大屠杀中，死亡是所有人的死， 这是在控诉大屠杀中的死是一种普遍且必然的死，控诉大屠杀的不分你我和不分青红皂白。
无论是他的摄影、装置还是影像作品，也不管尺寸是小至金属片小人，或大到及顶的起重机，从早期到近期作品，波尔坦斯基这充满恐惧式体验感的“忆所”背后，都蕴藏着沉重且哀伤的反思。这既是他儿时见闻的反思，也反映了战后欧洲的时代面貌， 但更是对现代艺术的一种矛盾展现。因为一方面，如现代画家马奈在创作时复制了提香作品中的姿势、构图和某些细节，从而将绘画建立在绘画自身和艺术的逻辑上，以此呈现现代主义艺术的自主性和知识学特征，尤其是将艺术建立在档案上; 而波尔坦斯基通过挪用三联画、宗教祭台形式和日常物饼干盒，以及继承自极简主义雕塑的氛围营造来创作，可谓如现代主义艺术家一样， 将艺术形式建立在艺术史和传统之上。另一方面，波尔坦斯基的创作主题，甚至大量创作材料却涉及艺术审美和“为艺术而艺术” 这一现代主义自主目标之外，乃至其对立面的内容。这是对历史灾难、政治议题和命运感悟的反思，而非纯然的审美愉悦和视觉专注性，在波尔坦斯基的作品中构成了基本的意义基础。实际上， 这一“矛盾”指向了艺术家用体验式的感性感受和创作形式，与艺术家想用的沉重理性来反思创作之间的矛盾，而营造氛围( 或曰“剧场性” ) 乃是此矛盾的典型表现。
艺术家通过营造氛围( 剧场性 )，给观者带来恐惧感和压抑感， 从而传达理性反思所涉及的历史和政治灾难等社会( 非艺术 ) 议题，这种方法或特征已遭到批判，但“剧场性批判”自身却又呈现出一种“批判的矛盾”。“忆所”现场灯光暗淡，巨大的人像摄影和旧衣，如幽灵般悬空飘荡，给观者一种不寒而栗的恐惧感。迈克尔·弗雷德在 20 世纪 60 年代就批判了由极简主义雕塑所带来的这类剧场性特征。1 剧场性批判认为，观者身处展览现场， 如同人在剧场之中，通过与环境互动的体验感，而非纯粹的视觉空间( 以及专注性 ) 这类不仅属于艺术，而且彰显了艺术特性的方法，来鉴赏艺术。但对波尔坦斯基而言，营造压抑感的氛围和展览现场，恰恰是为了让更多人，尤其是为普通公众打开感性体验背后的理性反思。不过更矛盾的是，正因为展览现场的氛围太过浓烈，因而从巨型的衣裤山、巨型人像—人眼纱帘照，到寓意“开始”与“终结”的霓虹灯管装置，都成为观众合影留念和 Seflie 的“著名景点”。这是一种看起来极其讽刺的矛盾: 艺术家痛苦地反思人类灾难，并殚精竭虑试图以感性形式，来唤起观众沉思的艺术作品，最终成了打卡合影和上传发布的社交场景。简单点说，艺术家原本想用阴郁、黑暗和恐惧感，来唤起观众对历史、政治和命运之反思或记忆的氛围营造，却更多成了打卡、合影和“修图晒图”的背景衬托。这意味着，旅行—社交的记忆，遮蔽了历史和灾难的记忆。就此而言，“剧场性批判”不无道理，但“剧场性”批判却面临另一困境: 一方面，不营造氛围和强调专注性的艺术作品或展览，如现代派大师展，实际上并不能避免沦为社交时代“打卡胜地”的命运; 但另一方面，不营造氛围，就意味着主动放弃了以感性—知觉或情感这一更快速、更直接的大脑运作系统，去吸引注意力，推动理性和反思的认知系统。认知科学已经表明，感性或情感是认知双进程模式之一。2 所以从艺术史和艺术批评的角度来看，“忆所”和氛围营造所体现的第二重矛盾， 是剧场性或氛围营造批判自身的矛盾:并非剧场性破坏了艺术性， 它最多是加快了艺术性的削弱，但剧场性又同时是吸引注意力的一种有效手段。
波尔坦斯基用感性体验和氛围营造，来传达他对历史—政治—命运等母题的理性反思，而《剧场性批判》营造氛围，不仅在一方面表现出了这一批判自身的矛盾，而且在另一方面，也更关键的，是这会忽视更大的、也是第三重，或曰更基本的矛盾和危机——网络社交时代的艺术鉴赏危机: 艺术家用感性和体验感这类呈现理性反思( 且符合认知和生物学机制 ) 的方法，来吸引观众的注意力，但观众的注意力却在网络社交机制下，消解了严 肃反思的感性表达( 剧场性 )。这意味着，任何艺术性，都无力完全抵挡社交时代视觉机制的侵蚀。如果说，在“剧场性”批判中， 批评家将专注性或艺术自律( 误 ) 判为氛围的受害者，那么从波尔坦斯基的“忆所”中，我们可以看到“剧场性”或氛围( 及其背后的历史反思 ) 本身也是更大的时代背景及其视觉机制的“受害者”。因此，艺术家和批评家的一项重要工作，与其说是将矛头指向艺术创作的具体特征，比如该不该要氛围，或要多少氛围， 还不如说应转向一个更值得反思的问题: 是否能在最大可能吸引尽可能多受众通过感受、鉴赏艺术作品和展览来进行反思的同时， 又尽最大可能抵挡具有时代特征的视觉机制对艺术特性的侵蚀? 或者说，当诸如网络社交时代的视觉机制已无孔不入侵蚀观众时， 我们怎样才能最大可能保留艺术鉴赏的审美、感性，却又不乏理性和批判的功能? 舍此，那么“忆所”所呈现出来的几重矛盾将不仅仅是鉴赏的危机，更是艺术自身的致命危机。