Rising up like a Mt. Fuji of clothing from the floor of the Park Avenue Armory is the latest, over-sized installation by French photographer and sculptor Christian Boltanski. Dubbed No Man’s Land, this sprawling piece is centered around a 30-ton mass of clothes that is picked up and dropped — in an act of abject futility — by a massive, industrial crane. All around are tidy squares of used clothing, illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights. In case you didn’t get the life and death message, a soundtrack of thumping heartbeats pours out from the speakers anchored on each of the light poles. The dire industrial backdrop keeps things suitably grim.
Certainly, there is something powerful about clothes when, as Boltanski puts it, their “subject is missing.” His pieces are intended to evoke a nostalgia for those who are no longer with us (in a way that echoes — uncannily — the tragic mountains of shoes left behind by Holocaust victims). But there’s another message here as well. During the press conference, Boltanski said that the garments on display were lent by a used clothing dealer in New Jersey that works with 70 tons of clothes everyday — shipping them off to the Third World for resale. According to the artist, the volume of cast-offs is so high, that it’s become impossible for the company to keep up. (Besides, there are only so many 5K T-shirts the Third World needs.) “People don’t keep clothes anymore,” he said. “They keep things a couple a of months and then discard them.”
And this is where Boltanski’s piece actually becomes interesting. As a meditation to life and death and the power of nostalgia, No Man’s Land feels overwrought. But as a monument to our society’s wasteful habits, the mountain of clothing — and the crane that helplessly tries to move the pile, only to see it go nowhere — couldn’t be more fitting.
No Man’s Land is up through June 13.