A commemoration of those who are gone”: Christian Boltanski in conversation with Meinrad Maria Grewenig

Mr Boltanski, you have visited the Völklinger Hütte World Heritage Site several times. What were your impressions of this monument to industrial culture?

This unique place made a strong impression on me. There’s a feeling of incredible power; you can sense all the human beings who lived and worked in this industrial temple.

When Völklinger Hütte was at its zenith, there were more than 17,000 people working here each day. According to company records, up to 1,446 forced labourers worked at Völklinger Hütte between 1915 and 1917. During the Second World War, 12,393 forced labourers from twenty countries worked here. Mr Boltanski, what made you want to create a memorial to forced labourers in the heart of Völklinger Hütte, the sintering plant?

There are few remaining traces of the people who are now gone. I wanted to make sure – albeit in a collective rather than an individual way – that these people don’t fade into complete oblivion. I want visitors to feel moved when they find themselves in this industrial environment and sense the presence of all the people who worked here.

Thanks to our work on a major research project, we have managed to find out the names of the forced labourers employed at Völklinger Hütte and to determine the details of their working conditions. How does your installation enable visitors to engage with this research?

I think the most important element of my work at Völklinger Hütte is that the names are said over and over again, thereby bringing to life the people who are no longer here. It is a true commemoration of those who are gone.

Visitors to “Memorial to Forced Labourers”, your large installation at Völklinger Hütte, don’t simply stand back and look at it like a picture. Instead, they must go right into the middle of the installation. Does your work aim to help people experience art in a more conscious way?

I’ve always said that you shouldn’t stand in front of something, in front of an artwork. Instead, you should go inside it. This process of going inside a work becomes part of the work itself.

While you were walking around Völklinger Hütte, you rediscovered the workers’ lockers. What inspired your second major installation here?

Each worker’s locker is like an Egyptian tomb containing the little treasures that the workers wanted to keep safe: a photo of someone, a personal item. These lockers – which once belonged not just to forced labourers, but to ordinary workers too – are the workers’ hidden treasures. For me, it was important to talk not just about the forced labourers, but about everyone who lived here. As the ironworks is now closed and serves a different purpose, I wanted to preserve the memory of everyone who shaped this place. I see the words of former workers as precious things in this regard.

What are your hopes for your two large installations at the Völklinger Hütte World Heritage Site?

Working at places of remembrance is always exciting for me. I occasionally work at museums and white cubes, but I don’t cherish those places quite so much. When I discover a place full of history like Völklinger Hütte, I’m much more excited about the prospect of creating a kind of collage between the place and my work.

The unabridged version of the conversation between Christian Boltanski and Meinrad Maria Grewenig is published in the catalogue accompanying Boltanski’s installations at Völklinger Hütte.

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