Christian Boltanski: Chance

"We are a puzzle of all the people living before us: the chin of a grandfather and the eyes of a great-great uncle and the ears of a great-great grandmother."  - Christian Boltanski

Chance by Christian Boltanski

While it contemplates the origin, nature and function of human life, Chance never comes across as forceful or heavy-handed and more questions are triggered than answered. Boltanski has created a complex, enigmatic and perplexing piece that is both intellectually and viscerally engaging, simultaneously exhilarating and distressing, and not without modesty and warmth.

Assembled in the main foyer of Carriageworks, as part of the 2014 Sydney Festival, Chance is comprised of three parts, the most impressive of which is ‘Wheel of Fortune’, a giant piece of scaffolding stretching the length of an Olympic pool and reaching eight metres high. Through the scaffolding framework runs a conveyer belt ‘producing’ an endless stream of newborn babies (or, more precisely, a moving reel of their photographs). At intervals a factory bell rings and the giant machine slowly comes to a halt creating a pause, a breath, within this perpetual, rhythmic production of human life. Large digital counters, at each side of the ‘Wheel of Fortune’, tally the number of births and deaths in a typical day. Numbers change rapidly, to what seems to be a beat of a heart, and this tempo creates a sort of metronome, a ‘musical’ accompaniment to Boltanski’s work.

“There is nothing mystical about our existence,” says Boltanski. Human life “is a mere technical and temporal matter; […] a result of chance.” The clearest expression of this philosophy is ‘Be Now’, the third and final component of Chance, a flickering montage of photographs of parts of faces of newly born babies and dead people in front of which there is a button visitors are invited to press. Pressing the button generates a still image of a three-part composite face. The juxtapositions are mostly gruesome but every now and then, if ‘by chance’ you have pressed the button at a favourable time, you might end up with a pleasant looking assemblage. The interactive quality of ‘Be Now’ reflects Boltanski’s interest in making the visitors a part of the work. On the one hand ‘Be Now’ is a fun game, on the other it serves as a metaphor for our participation in the mechanics of the wheel of fortune, our participation in the creation of life.

Despite its monumental scale, grim industrial material and ambitious philosophical enquiry, Christian Boltanski’s installation is surprisingly humble, graceful and delicate. The mechanics of ‘Wheel of Fortune’ could easily come across as harsh, cold and militant yet they produce smooth and gracious movement which, if observed for some time, becomes soothing and meditative.

The big ideas are executed in a simple way and there is plenty of breathing space left for numerous interpretations. This open-endedness is most obvious in the contrast between individual and collective, and the tension between chance and destiny. On the one hand, the sheer length of the baby-reel in the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and the detached flickering digits of birth-death data speak of the individual’s insignificance and anonymity. On the other hand you find yourself interested in connecting with an individual face, in locating its uniqueness and distinctiveness. Another ambiguity emerges in the conflict between the random production of human life and its pre-planned nature. The ‘Wheel of Fortune’ suggests there is no particular order in the flow of babies, yet the machine works so perfectly precisely that there seems to be nothing unforseen or aimless in this production. In fact, the image of a factory like manufacture paradoxically inspires contemplation on the function and purpose of human life.

The openness of Chance has a thrilling, invigorating, and inspiring effect. There seems to be no hard edges to this work, but it rather flows freely around and outside its designated space. You might find yourself thinking about it for days.

Chance is showing at Carriageworks, Sydney until March 23rd.



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