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Reflecting on Christian Boltanski’s Lifetime exhibit

By Jacqueline Mai

The most difficult yet captivating exhibit installed in the Israel Museum is Christian Boltanski’s Lifetime. Sprawled across a series of large rooms, Lifetime’s motifs consist of massive, sheer curtains printed with close-up portraits of anonymous individuals (some lost in the Holocaust), black coats hung on makeshift mannequins, the ringing of windchimes, and tangled strings of lights. The eerie silence of the exhibit is only intermittently interrupted by the soundtrack of a subway conductor announcing imaginary stops. In addition, there is an enormous stopwatch attached to the wall, counting down.

Boltanski seemed to explore his own views of mortality—and by extension, memory—through his motifs. There are times throughout the exhibit in which the strings of lights connecting the victims’ portraits (symbolizing yahrzeit or memorial candles) were not lit—perhaps to signify how easy it is for the memory of a individual to evaporate, or not exist at all. Inversely, the close-up portraits of the victims’ eyes—printed on sheer white curtains—could also signify how easy it is to lose sight of the core components of the individual upon scrutiny. In his work, Boltanski asks how we can best uphold the memories of those who are no longer with us, and how we ourselves wish to be remembered.

(Lifetime is open at the Israel Museum until October 31, 2018).