Christian Boltanski, Les archives du coeur, Serpentine Gallery, London

10 July – 8 August 2010

I’ve been long been drawn to the work of French conceptual and installation artist Christian Boltanski. I don’t really remember my first encounter with his practice – it may have been an overwrought art theory lecture on trauma? – but his decades-long practice, which might best be described visually as a sort of mournful poetry in its exploration of memory, absence, loss and suffering, continues to resonate.

While much of Boltanski’s work is rooted in an awareness of the Holocaust and its social and historical consequences, universally his work is about reclaiming the individual experience within History and Memory and the ultimately ephemeral nature of both life and ‘little M’ memory.

The opportunity to contribute to Boltanski’s latest work thus proved irresistible.

In Les archives du coeur, or The Heart Archive, Boltanski returns to the fundamental idea of his 2005 work Le Coeur, where a single light bulb flickered on and off to the rhythm of the artist’s recorded heartbeat, a neat visual expression for the connection between darkness and revelation and life and death. In Les archives, Boltanski re-visits this idea of the heartbeat – as both a function of the artwork and as a metaphorical and physiological testimony to the singularity of each life lived. Began in 2005, Les archives, as an encounter, is an unassuming white office space with the equipment to simply record the heartbeat of each visitor. These heartbeats – named and dated – are then added to an ongoing archive now in excess of one million recordings collected from all over the world. As an experience, Les archives is oddly mechanical and while each visitor takes a CD of their recorded heartbeat away with them, it is not heard during the recording process, which is done with a small electronic stethoscope pressed simply to the chest and plugged in to a computer. The magnitude – and the poetry – of the gesture lies in the vision of this simple 30 second soundtrack to the very essence of your being, being held with so many others in a specially designated archive on the uninhabited island of Ejima in the Sea of Japan. A 30 second soundtrack that says I was here and my existence was real. For such a perfunctory encounter it is a profoundly overwhelming concept.

In January this year the archive was broadcast throughout Boltanski’s epic installation Personnes at the Grand Palais in Paris for Monumenta 2010. Not having experienced the work in this context, with the heartbeats echoing throughout the 13,500 square metre space as visitors navigated their way through the carefully arranged piles of abandoned clothes, the imaginative and emotional possibilities are but endless. If Boltanski’s other works are any measure of things, the resounding effect in this environment was undoubtedly an awareness of the human experience as both tangible and fleeting.

Boltanski has said that he is interested in “what I call ‘little memory’, an emotional memory, an everyday knowledge, the contrary of the Memory with a capital M that is preserved in history books. This little memory, which for me is what makes us unique, is extremely fragile and it disappears with death. This loss of identity, this equalisation in forgetting, is very difficult to accept.” Les archives du coeur is both a material and a philosophical counter to this forgetting, and while it is hugely confronting to realise that in recording life you are ultimately acknowledging death, participating in Boltanski’s work is affirming above and beyond anything else – of the preciousness of life and of the value of each of us as individuals.

This is the first time Les archives du coeur has been shown in the United Kingdom and it is should not be missed.