With his Personnes installation set to be unveiled in the gargantuan nave of Paris's Grand Palais next week, the veteran French artist Christian Boltanski has bagged one of the most coveted European contemporary-art commissions of 2010. It's the third show in the Monumenta series of solo exhibitions organised by the French Culture Ministry (Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer featured previously) to put Paris on the contemporary art map – the series is the French equivalent of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall commission. But how will the 65-year-old fill the Baroque-style 13,500 square-metres space?
Boltanski's bleak vision for the Palais – he promises to deliver a 21st-century version of Dante's Inferno – centres on a crane that will swoop down to pick up handfuls of clothes from a 12m high pile. "The big idea behind the piece is this killing factory because you have a mountain of clothes and this metal hand that will take some clothes and reject other clothes. It's like the finger of God because we don't know who is going to be killed or not killed," he says.
More than 400 human heartbeats will resonate throughout the space, part of Boltanski's ongoing Archives du Coeur project, while a chill wind will penetrate the cavernous area. "I have refused to put the heating on," says Boltanski, adding that this froideur will ensure spectators "are inside the work rather than in front of it". A parallel exhibition, Après, will run at Mac/Val Museum outside Paris, where Boltanski depicts the afterlife.
But there's more to his grim ambitions. The artist has agreed to live and work on camera for the rest of his life for a Big Brother-style intervention commissioned by the Tasmanian art collector David Walsh. "Four cameras will film me night and day in my studio. This will be streamed live to a cave in Tasmania where anyone can watch the action," he says. The longer Boltanski lives, the more Walsh has to pay for the piece – art not to die for, perhaps.
Personnes is at Grand Palais, Paris, 13 January to 21 February (Grandpalais.fr); Après is at Mac/Val Museum, Paris, 15 January to 28 March (Macval.fr)