One of the key influences of Satellites came unexpectedly one summer several years ago, in Amsterdam.
My aunt Margriet Gehrels, a painter, had told me about an exhibition happening in the Oude Kerk (Old Church), by an artist called Christian Boltanski, called Na (After). He has been a big influence on her work, which is made up of memories, or the imaginations of memories. The themes she described- existence, erasure, light and shadow, transience- resonated with the work I was trying to make, so I decided to go to the city for the afternoon and see what it was all about.
The Oude Kerk is a church dating from 1213, set in the heart of the infamous Red Light District. I went inside not knowing what to expect.
The first thing that struck me was the sound- a gentle rustling, and somewhere in the distance, the tinkling of tiny bells.
Boltanski had split the interior of the church into sections using large boxes which were covered in black plastic. As you meandered through the alleyways they created, you saw snatches of the building revealing itself- part of a window here, a doorway there. Occasionally you saw another person, and then in an instant they were gone.
Coathangers stood with empty coats hanging on them. As you moved closer, you heard whispers coming from the folds of the fabric.
In a wide open space in the middle was a series of coats lying empty on the ground, as if the wearers had simply vanished into the sky without a trace. The chandeliers had been lowered close down to the stone.
An alcove was decorated with fairy lights, and one was programmed to go out on each day of the exhibition. At an altar, there was an offering of dried roses.
At the end of the installation was a confession-style booth. I stepped inside, where there was a chair and a small desk with a large book on it, and a microphone. The artist had invited each visitor to contribute to the work- to sit down at the microphone and record, whispering, some of the names of the many thousands of people who were buried underneath this historic church, as listed in the book. When you were done, you mark where you’ve got to in the list ready for the next person to take over. Your recordings are then added to the sounds which are piped out from inside the coats- eventually, the name of every person, back to 1213, would have been spoken aloud, and for a moment, if you believe in those sorts of things, brought back to life.
As I stepped out into the sunlight and the tottering groups of drunk tourists heading to the nearest pub, I was filled with peace. The way Boltanski had managed to communicate so many complex ideas about death in just a few objects arranged in a specific way was amazing to me. The exhibition has stayed with me and been a huge influence on what Satellites has started to become.
Find out more about Na at the Oude Kerk.
Read about another large-scale Boltanski piece, “Personnes” at the Grand Palais, Paris.