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Christian Boltanski's No Man's Land at the Armory

05/15/2010 08:10 am 08:10:23 | Updated May 25, 2011

Is that my pink frilly frock dangling above a mountain of tired clothes by the paw of a crane? Look at it drop to join the tons of garments below, not quite far enough away to avoid the next random fistful. Maybe that's not my old party dress, but it could be. I am drawn to its fate, anyway, to the fact that eventually it will be out of reach, buried by the next drop.

Obsessed with questions of identity, memory, and loss, Boltanski created this huge installation now displayed in the 55,000 square foot drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory. It originated at the Grand Palais in Paris, inspired by one of those contraptions in an amusement park, where you try your best to pick up a teddy bear with a metal arm. Of course you never can, Boltanski said playfully, looking a lot like Hitchcock.

But this exhibition is dead serious: coats and outer clothing are meticulously arranged on the ground, in sections, with disturbing harsh lights thrown on them like a police lineup, an interrogation of the inanimate. And the noise: heartbeats throbbing in cacophony.

I say, when I see a mass of anything I think of Auschwitz, of human hair, shoes, suitcases, and the iconic pile of bones. He replies, "All my art is after the Holocaust. Yes, it is about that and much more."

A woman offers, she sees the detritus after a plane crash. Walking around the space, you are pulled into history's large questions about man's place, the human condition, the value of life, and the power of pondering all that. But the making of art is far more practical. The tons of clothes were acquired from a place in New Jersey, solving a closer problem: what to do with the enormous excesses of clothing, now that it can all be purchased so cheaply.

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