Remembrance of things past: Christian Boltanski is a multi-media artist: there's the book, the triple touring exhibition, the 'South Bank Show' . . . Tom Lubbock explains why he's worth it. Overleaf, another art-form, another way of remembering

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'THIS IS difficult to say, but I am for an art that is sentimental. What I want to do is make people cry. My job is to find the means to do it.' And he does. The art of Christian Boltanski is full of the power of cheap tricks. Take The Children of Dijon, an installation made by the French artist in the mid-Eighties, and shown to great effect in many places, including his 1990 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. Dozens of photos of children's faces, deeply blurred, simply framed, are hung all over a wall, each illuminated by little bulbs (the only light source) whose flexes trail nakedly between the pictures. Cheap and simple as that.

But we understand very well what we're to think of these children, who we know only from these photos, and of whose birth-dates and lives we're quite ignorant. They're all dead of course. The suggestion of lots of little shrines tells you this clearly. Dead how, though, and when? What sort of sympathy do they deserve? You wonder if there was a catastrophe, an epidemic, a massacre, a Pied Piper of Dijon, or if something happened there in the war that we should know about, or whether they died, so to speak, ordinarily and one by one. But the evidence isn't made available. Just dead children is what you have, and plenty of them. Is this sentimental or what is it? Is it saying anything? Is it serious?

Death is admittedly an unpromising start. We know this talk too well, especially in the matter of art and its interpretation. The work, ultimately, is about death: heard that one before, often, and it always makes a good ending. Certainly, when critics play the Queen of Spades, they've usually played their last card. But here we have an artist who has made a career, and a good one - the Venice Biennale, the Hanover Documenta, and now a book, a South Bank Show and three new shows in Britain - from work that is plainly, directly, bluntly about death.

For the past dozen years, Boltanski has dealt explicitly in monuments and memorials, the memento mori and the danse macabre. There have been spook theatres made from fragile little puppets whose candle-lit shadows flicker on the wall. There have been sombre archive-catacombs made of stacks of biscuit tins, shoe-boxes and old clothes. How then to go on about an art which speaks so clearly for itself, and what it says over and over is dead, dead, dead? Best to try talking life for a while.

Christian Boltanski - here we go - was born in Paris in 1944. His mother was Corsican. His father was Jewish. His upbringing was Catholic. Under the Occupation, his father (a doctor) spent much of the time beneath the floorboards in the family home, and Boltanski was perhaps conceived there. Growing up, he and his siblings slept in sleeping bags around their parents' bed (not for want of room). He was 11 when he left school, 18 before he left the house unaccompanied. Some of the stories Boltanski has told of his early life are indeed strange. Some of them are true.

Probably all the stories I've mentioned are true, but talking straight about Boltanski's life is not easy. Boltanski has also claimed: 'I no longer have any childhood memories. I have erased them by inventing so many false memories.' He plays hard to get, if you like. (For example, that remark itself comes from an interview published as a facsimile typescript, from which the artist had totally obliterated about half of his own responses in felt-tip. The passage in question actually goes: 'I no longer have any childhood memories. I have erased them by inventing so many false memories. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.') Yet Boltanski has also subsequently claimed that this remark was a lie all along. This is symptomatic of more than the usual artistic qualms about 'biography'. From the start, Boltanski made his own life - or supposed versions of it - his subject, with a procedure that continues into the later death-works.

In the late Sixties, Boltanski began an on-

going project under the general heading 'Reconstructions of My Youth'. He made use in particular of exhibits - more in the forensic than the artistic sense - which were presented in museum vitrines and 'documentary' booklets of photos. There was Research and Presentation of All that Remains of My Childhood: a handful of photos, fragments of cloth, hair, exercise and reading books. There was a booklet of 10 Portrait Photographs of Christian Boltanski, which were revealed in fact to be pictures of other children, aged two to 20, all taken in 1972 by Boltanski's partner, the artist Annette Messenger. The questions posed are clear enough. How recoverable is anyone's past? How unique or integral is anyone's identity? How reliable is any evidence for these things?

Also in the early Seventies, Boltanski turned to other lives than his 'own'. He made a series of Inventories, called things like Inventory of Objects Belonging to a Young Man of Oxford or to an Old Lady of Baden-Baden. More random groupings of dumb possessions, but did the objects belong to one person? Did any such person exist? Does it matter? He also produced a dossier of Murderers and Victims, photos from a crime magazine, but with nothing to distinguish who was who - a work dwelling on the doubtful power of faces, and how we find in them the supposedly unmistakable marks of 'beast' and 'prey'.

Whether its focus is on life or death, Boltanski's is an art of human traces and relics: photos, objects, things bearing signs of use, second-hand things, the stuff of junk shops and jumble sales. And it exploits both the suggestive and the deceptive power of evidence, the way that any face (however anonymous), any object (however everyday), when displayed or viewed in the right light, can become evidence for a whole life, a springboard for the sympathetic imagination to leap from.

Items in a lost-property office, for example - which Boltanski occasionally works with - are great departure-points for zigzagging sentimental journeys. For an item of lost property is really an item of found property. It is the owner who is now lost. A lost-property office is home to hundreds of implied missing persons. But since the person has gone missing, the imagination is free to wander, to spin out a life elsewhere from a single brooch or umbrella.

At which point the very meagreness of the evidence becomes itself something pathetic - just this one item, now standing for a whole other life. (But then, how much would ever be enough?) And then you may feel conscious of the sorry inadequacy of your own feelings for this person you've never known. (But then, did you expect to know everyone? A strange thing, the feeling that you want or ought to know everyone in the world - but a feeling that Bolstanski's work often brings to light.) Or again, conscious of your laughable susceptibility to sympathetic speculations. (But then again, is everyone that different?) The smallest thing, with a little emphasis, gives rise to all the famous, fatuous churchyard reflections.

This circuit of interacting overreactions, switching back and forth between pathos and absurdity, is given an overload when Boltanski works en masse. Piles of boxes and tins, each labelled with a photo, representing piles of dead, preserving - what are we to imagine? - their physical remains or few surviving personal effects. Literally, no doubt, these containers are empty. But they are inescapably full of associations and emotions waiting to be revelled in.

Granted, much of the effect must be credited to Boltanski's highly theatrical installations, to his evocations of Jewish and Catholic ritual - candelabra, reliquary, altarpiece. There is that beautiful emblem of loss, in which he lights a photograph with an Anglepoise lamp whose shade is clamped down so closely over the face that what it illumines, it wholly obscures. And, thinking or not thinking of Boltanski's personal history, there's the unavoidable memory of the Holocaust, of those piles of spectacles and false teeth.

Boltanski never disavows this association, though he has only rarely made specific references. (One work, Canada, named after the rooms full of inmates' effects in the Nazi extermination camps, filled a room, floor to ceiling, with countless second-hand garments hanging in ranks.) But speaking of another piece, a photo installation called Dead Swiss, he said: 'Dead and Jew go too well together. It is too obvious. There is nothing more normal than the Swiss. There is no reason for them to die, so they are more terrifying in a way. They are us.'

But isn't it all too obvious, and absolutely too much? Of course it is. If we worry that Boltanski's work deals in naked emotional exploitation, then that's quite true. His subject is not capital-D Death so much as the unnumbered and decidedly lower-case dead and our own helplessness before them - our helplessness to mourn, our helplessness not to. It's like hearing a vicar hopelessly intoning: 'We think of the people of Bosnia . . . And Somalia . . .' - thoughts which you might want to call vacant, but can hardly be abjured.

How stupid, for instance, to let one's tears be jerked by The Children of Dijon. How stupid to be moved by these rows of individual faces, which - apparently more humanising than mere numbers or mere names on a roll call - hold for us a quite meaningless individuality. Come on, we don't even know if they're dead, let alone that they died as children. (Boltanski's sources here were actually quite innocent school photographs.)

On the other hand, how impossible not to. This lot of children, whose faces have been meaninglessly singled out for public attention, may be unknown; but then, dead or alive, almost everyone is widely unknown. And they are no less dead, or will be soon, than all the others - and no less forgettable. Boltanski, who has said his idea of a true monument is not one that lasts forever, but one that must be re-built every day, makes his all-too-perishable memorials not only for the sake of memory and tears but for the loss, short-falling and uselessness of those things.

Exhibitions of Boltanski's work are at the Tramway, Glasgow (041-422 2023), the Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow (041-332 7521) and Dean Clough, Halifax (0422 320250), all until 12 June, then Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (010 3531 702 1116) 15 July to 27 Aug. A book, 'Christian Boltanski' by Lynn Gumpert, is published by Flammarion (out now, pounds 20). A 'South Bank Show' about Boltanski is on ITV next Sunday.