Boltanski’s hearts don’t skip a beat

by Danielle Demetriou

There are few places more remote. I wander along an overgrown path humming with birds and lined with rice fields before finding myself in front of a house on a small beach.

As if on cue, a woman with a blank face and a clinical white coat appears at the door and leads me silently to a windowless room. Here, I slip on a pair of headphones, pick up a stethoscope, place it on my chest — and proceed to listen to the eerie sound of my own heart beating.

This may sound like a scene from an offbeat thriller movie. But the reality is even more surreal: I have traveled to a tiny fishing island in Japan’s remote Seto Inland Sea to visit a work of art that immortalizes human heartbeats from around the world.

Christian Boltanski, the respected French artist behind its creation, has long been transfixed with life and death, monuments and memorials and the myriad of ways in which an existence can be recorded.

From personal mementos and empty photo frames to countless telephone directory books and piles of clothes belonging to absent owners, the 65-year-old artist has spent decades exploring the fragile traces made by human lives.

But there are few more powerful symbols of human life than a heartbeat: “Les Archives du Coeur” is a memorial of an ongoing and ever-expanding collection of thousands of human heartbeats from around the world.

“For me, it is like a fairy tale,” says Boltanski, whose piece forms part of the Setouchi International Art Festival. “There is an island in faraway Japan with thousands of heartbeats. It is very simple. What is important to know is that the place exists and that your heartbeat is in Japan.”

It was on an idyllic hidden patch of beach on tiny Teshima — an island spanning less than 15 sq. km and home to a diminutive 1,000-strong population — that the artist chose to build a neat black wooden house for his heartbeat memorial.

The sound of visitors’ heartbeats are recorded using a computer, stethoscope and microphone before the guests step into the centerpiece of the work: a dark rectangular room with a near deafening thumping sound of a heartbeat, synchronized with a single blinking light bulb that in brief snatches illuminates walls covered with empty photo frames.

Plucked from a growing pool of heartbeat recordings (there were 14,280 when I visited; mine is registered number 222), a single heart beat is heard for around a minute, with the name of its owner and the location in which it was recorded highlighted on a screen just before entering.

A few weeks earlier, describing his new work over a cup of tea in a Tokyo hotel, Boltanski says: “It can travel anywhere and it’s already been to about nine countries over the past five years — Berlin, Korea, Sweden, Italy. Next year it will go to Finland.

“What I wish but will never happen is to have all the heartbeats on earth; a Utopian ideal and totally impossible, of course.

“What I find strange is the thought that after some years, many of the heartbeats will belong to people who have died. It will become a ghost island with plenty of spirits.”

Emphasizing the appeal of a heartbeat, he adds: “In all cultures, a heartbeat means to be human, to be alive. I collected for a long time thousands of photos of people, names, clothes.

“For me it is very important to try to preserve somebody. But I know it is not possible.”

Such a quest for preservation has long been apparent in his work: from his early 1970s explorations of documenting his own life to the more recent “Personnes,” which consists of a grid of piles of clothes with poignantly absent owners against a soundtrack of heartbeats.

“For me, one of the most important universal things about being an artist is asking questions,” he says.

“I really believe that everybody is unique, and at the same time everybody is so fragile. And after two or three generations, everybody forgets. That is what is so important — people being unique and fragile at the same time.”

It should perhaps come as little surprise that death is a subject that tops the list in terms of Boltanski’s questions and emerges as a commonly recurrent theme in his work.

Testimony to this is one of his more macabre recent projects, involving broadcasting live camera footage from his Paris studio to a cave in Tasmania, for which he receives a monthly fee from a wealthy Australian gambler. In a creative gamble on his own life itself, if the artist lives for longer than eight years hence, he will receive more money the value of the piece, but if he dies before, the gambler will win.

“God, sex, death — these are the big subjects that have always preoccupied art, philosophy and humans,” he says. “There is something very pure about death. Today, we try to forget we are going to die. I love life and I wish to die as late as possible. But at the same time, everybody is going to die. I think everybody now wants to hide the fact that they are getting older and are going to die.”

He adds, with a sparkle in his eyes: “But I have every intention of living longer than eight years. This man says he has never before lost a bet, so I have to win.”

Amid the gambles and the speculation, there is one certainty: the heartbeats of thousands of lives are now destined to continue to beat loudly on a tiny stretch of beach on one faraway Japanese island.

“Les Archives du Coeur” on Teshima Island is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed most Tue. For dates, check setouchi-artfest.jp/en