October 18, 2013 7:12 pm

Identity in a biscuit tin

‘If I were to fill 646 biscuit tins with some personal archive, what would I include?’

I was at the Pompidou Centre looking at an installation by Christian Boltanski from 1989: 646 old biscuit tins arranged as a wall and lit from above by black metal lamps. The tins themselves contained 1,200 photographs and 800 miscellaneous documents hidden inside – items gathered by the artist from his studio in France over a 23-year period. Although simply entitled “Les archives de Christian Boltanski 1965-1988”, this wall of tin boxes, almost three metres high, also felt like a sort of secret diary, a biography, a self-portrait – even a memorial. I stood in front of it utterly captivated. I think it’s one of the best sights of Paris.

Boltanski is, perhaps, best known for deeply haunting works in which enormous spaces are filled with old clothes as a way of prompting thoughts and feelings about the people who used to wear them – particularly, the clothing depots in the death camps. Three years ago at Paris’s Grand Palais, the artist made an installation, “Personnes” (meaning both “people” and “nobodies”), from 30 tons of clothes arranged in an enormous grid pattern. It was accompanied by a very loud soundtrack of recorded heartbeats.

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Susie Boyt

Standing in front of “Les Archives” made me think of so many things: exile, humility, childhood, home, concealment and display, and of how we as humans come to measure and regard our own personal history, our memories and our suffering.

The tins themselves were modest in size and almost square, and some of them were beautifully rusty – not orange rust but deep sea-coloured rust. You could not help wondering about their contents, the evidence of life lived within, how what was chosen had been chosen, and how the rest had been discarded. I dimly remembered that Boltanski had taught a family friend at art school in Paris in the 1970s. She had worshipped him.

You could not gaze upon this work of art without thinking: “If I were to fill 646 biscuit tins with a personal archive, what would I include?” That day I was angry, and I had revenge on the brain. This had created a strange kind of energy and I was hot to the touch. People were reacting to me with tremendous courtesy. How best to represent that? Could I document the conversation I had with a florist when he said: “Why the long face?” and then asked if he could be of help, and I fancied that his offer contained everything from a free bunch of roses to the services of hit men? Hmmm.

. . .

Later, at home, I found Boltanski’s website, with details of a project called Storage Memory and an offer I could not refuse. (I might give it to everyone for Christmas.) To all subscribers (at a cost of €120 a year) he pledges to “send, each month, 10 one-minute original films, making up, with the passage of time, a kind of self-portrait depicting his experiences and emotions, a work in progress of unknown duration which only death will put an end to.” I signed up.

The phrase “only death will put an end to” stayed with me all day, its dark romance, its sense of threat.

Self-analysis, of a more slapstick sort, was the theme of that whole day. An email from my daughter’s school arrived out of the blue, asking us to bring snacks that “reflected our culture” to a gathering for parents the following week.

Half the mums in the school were now suffering an existential crisis that, truth be told, was more Bridget Jones than Boltanski. “I mean, Gaah! Who am I?” a friend texted me. “And, moreover, how do I put that ‘I’ on toast?” (I had never before seen “moreover” in a text message and was impressed.) How indeed?

Storing records of your inner self in a biscuit tin was one thing but crystallising your beliefs, heritage and passions into canapé form? It sure was daunting.

“Like Boltanski I, too, am half-Jewish and half-Catholic,” – I spoke the words out rather grandly into the empty air.

I listed the other things that make me, me: a belief that psychoanalysis is an unrivalled method of understanding human behaviour; a deep attachment to London; an addiction to whistling; extreme gratitude for my lovely friends; a preference for indoors rather than outdoors; a love of anything related to the stage. Could I invent a new mini-dish, such as “shrinks on horseback”? “Roasted medley of ham served with show tunes”?

I pictured myself arranging fancy little things to eat on a tray, in neat rows, like chorus girls, while crooning, “I am what I am./ I am my own special creation,” from La Cage aux Folles. Could be worse, I suppose.

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susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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