As Christian Boltanski was making final preparations for his installation No Man’s Land at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, the artist met with A.i.A. to discuss the piece. On view May 14 to June 13, it’s the second contemporary art commission for the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall in the Armory (Ernesto Neto’s was the first). An earlier version of Boltanski’s work, titled Personnes, was on view at the Grand Palais in Paris in January as part of its Monumenta commissioning program. Comprising many of the same components—a 25-foot-tall pile of used clothing, a mechanical claw on a crane and the sound of heartbeats—it will be slightly reconfigured in New York. According to Rebecca Robertson, president and CEO of the Armory, the soundtrack here will create a more rhythmic roar, because the Armory’s reverberation time is slower than that of the Grand Palais, where the echoing heartbeats overlapped.

Recorded heartbeats are also key to a new project Boltanski is working on, Les Archives du Coeur, slated to open in July. He has been compiling a digital archive of thousands of people’s heartbeats from many different countries that will be housed on a remote private island in Japan as part of the Benesse Art Site Naoshima. The project, which will be permanent, opens as a component of the region’s Setouchi International Arts Festival [July 18-Oct. 31]. The following is an edited version of a conversation that took place on Mar. 12.

STEPHANIE CASH Originally the Armory [1881] was used for military training, while the Grand Palais [1900] was and remains an exhibition hall. Are you approaching the New York installation any differently than the one in Paris?

CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI It has the same essential elements as the Grand Palais. You must really think about the story of the place and try to make some kind of a collage with the space. You can’t do the same show in a white cube and in a place like the Armory. Both the Grand Palais and the Armory are like palaces, especially the historic rooms of the Armory, and at the same time the Armory is also like a big garage or a 19th-century railway station. Though this is similar to the work in Paris, the space makes it different. It’s like a musical score for a symphony. Each time it’s the same music, but each time it’s different.

SC  Tell me about the installation.

CB  A wall of metal boxes will be installed at the entrance, to make a curtain between the street and the work, to forget the outside. I often use these old tin biscuit boxes. I love them because they’re totally minimal, and at the same time they’re very sentimental—objects from childhood used to store your small treasures, or a place to put keepsakes or ashes.

SC  What does the clothing signify?

CB It’s used clothing. I’ve always imagined that used clothing and a photo of somebody and a dead body are nearly the same. They’re all objects related to the missing person. On the floor there are mostly coats, which more clearly take the form of people. On the “mountain” are other types of clothing that are all mixed up. You can’t imagine these people. There is no more individuality.

SC Why are the coats laid out in gridded plots?

CB This is where everyone is alive. It’s a little like a refugee camp, but it can be something else. The plots are where people are waiting, not in very good condition, but they are waiting. When visitors walk around they look like part of the piece. They look down like they are searching for someone. I want visitors to really be a part of the work, not just to stand in front of something. From a speaker on a stanchion at each plot you can hear an individual heartbeat. And there are speakers on the balcony, and the sound of so many heartbeats throughout the installation begins to sound like a factory.

SC  Is there sound on the mountain also?

CB No, that is a place to die.

SC  What does the crane do? It looks like the claw in those arcade games.

CB Yes, I got the idea from amusement parks. But they use this claw for cars and heavy things. The crane is a little like the finger of God, or like destiny. It moves a bit like it’s choosing someone, but it really moves at random. It grabs a clawful of clothing, lifts it into the air and drops the clothing back onto the pile.

SC  With some of your other pieces, you’ve addressed particular communities or events. Are there any specific references in this work?

CB  I think when you are an artist, you have several questions that are important to you, and you try to find answers to these questions. I’ve always been interested in trying to understand why one person survives and someone else doesn’t. Most of the time you don’t find answers, but what is important is to ask the question. A big issue for me is the uniqueness, the importance of each person, yet, at the same time, after two or three generations you disappear totally.

SC Did you use your own heartbeat in this work?

CB No, for five or six years I’ve collected heartbeats
for a library I’m creating on an island in Japan, and I already have 60,000 heartbeats from a lot of countries. We will collect more here in the Armory. On July 18th
my library will open, and it will be possible to go there and to say “I want to hear the heartbeat of Mrs. Smith.” After some time, all the heartbeats will belong to dead people, and this will become an island of dead people, in a sense. You can collect heartbeats but you can’t preserve people.

SC  In a lot of your work you use photographs of people.

CB I use names; I use clothes; I use photographs; or I use heartbeats. But I see no difference between a photo and a heartbeat.

SC  Do you ever know whose heartbeat you’re using?

CB No, but I have their names, the city, and a number so that they can be found at the library in Japan.

SC  Where do the heartbeats in the Armory installation come from?

CB From Sweden, but only by chance.

SC  Who’s providing the clothing?

CB It’s a company that collects and redistributes clothing. They make felt
and send a lot of clothes to Africa. They told me they recycle 70 tons a day. Really incredible. It would be awful to keep these clothes for my piece, because people need clothes. It would be very difficult for me to play with bread in my work, too. I really want the clothes to go back into use. I think in May there will be a smell from all these clothes, and that’s also a part of the work. The Grand Palais show was in January, and I refused to have heat in the place because I wanted it to be very cold.

SC Are you doing installations elsewhere in the Armory?

CB  There will be a little library of books I’ve made, and a film in another room, and a “doctor’s office” where we will record heartbeats on the computer, and you can buy a CD of your own heartbeat.

SC  How does this work fit into your oeuvre?

CB  Sixty or seventy percent of my work is more or less destroyed after a show. What is important for me is that it can be done again if someone knows how. It’s a little like music: when a composer creates a composition, this composition can be played by other people. Mozart played a lot of Bach’s, for example. It would be very interesting if another artist “played” my art after I died.

SC  Why is that important to you, that your work is destroyed?

CB It is destroyed and not destroyed. Most art is only a relic. I wish mine to be more like a story, or knowledge. It’s not about the object, it’s the story.

Photos: (left) View of the Personnes installation at the Grand Palais, Paris. (right) Boltanski at the Armory in New York discussing his plans for No Man’s Land, opening May 14.