Turning to photography with a personal and historical address in 1969, the French installation artist Christian Boltanski mailed 150 galleries a nine-page booklet titled “Recherche et presentation de tout ce qui reste de mon enfance, 1944-1950” (“Research and Presentation of All That Remains of My Childhood, 1944-1950”).

The intimate archaeological record included stereotypical snapshots of his family, childhood bed and T-shirts. The recurring photographed figure, however, was not Boltanski but his nephew. The autobiography was not quite his own. Memories eroded, recovered, or forged from or for other peoples and times are the major themes of “Christian Boltanski: Lifetime,” the artist’s first full-scale Japan retrospective currently on show at The National Museum of Art, Osaka.

Among the most relevant works to these themes is a display of tinplate boxes from 1970, inside which Boltanski placed replicas of items from his childhood fashioned from modeling clay. Intentionally fragile, these objects indicate the impossibility of conserving memory. In a later example, “Reserve (La fete du Pourim)” (1987), Boltanski appropriates the facial portraits of four anonymous women. These are stacked on metal boxes evoking funerary urns. As the restitution of individual lives from the oblivion of time, the arrangement suggests a type of religious altar, while the photographs insinuate the Holocaust dead, a theme Boltanski later pursued.

The exhibition has few pieces from the ’70s and early ’80s, favoring installations from the last couple of decades. “Animitas” (2014) is a 13-hour video of an installation in the Atacama Desert in Chile, spanning sunrise to sunset. For the work, Boltanski staked flexible rods into the ground in the configuration of the stars relative to the earth on his birthday, Sept. 6, 1944. Attached to the rods were Japanese wind bells with translucent hanging tanzaku strips on which people wrote their names, hopes and prayers. These were filmed wavering in the wind to produce the soft tinkling of wind chimes.

With the site abandoned, the installation gradually perished with time, an intentional and frequent feature of Boltanski’s works. Recurrent, almost ceremonial, video screenings serve as testament to its existence and the museum setup has offerings of straw and flowers laid before the TV screen in pseudo-religious tribute.

Boltanski has estimated that around 80 percent of his works no longer exist. Recent practice has seen him attempting to create visual fables about his life through his artwork as more resilient forms of immaterial memory. Alluring in this vein is “Misterios” (2017), a three-channel video installation sited in northern Patagonia. A whale skeleton at left and a rippling seascape at right flank the central screen focusing on large black trumpets mounted on poles. Wind billowing through these reverberates, creating the moaning audio of the installation.

Local lore considers whales to be all knowing, having existed since the origin of the world. A regional expression, “Ask the whales,” is used in response to unanswerable questions. Boltanski’s audio, then, represents a mystic conversation with the migratory whales of the region, the trumpeting noises being his preoccupation with questions about humanity, directed to the sea.

When Boltanski’s titular “Lifetime” is over, and he is forgotten, he hopes a fantastic story will still be told about “a man who tried to speak to whales.”

“Christian Boltanski: Lifetime” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka runs until May 6 ; ¥900. For more information, visit www.nmao.go.jp.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.