The Transcience of a Hodgepodge

Christian Boltanski’s installations with photos of people whose identity has been long forgotten fascinate me. Especially one work we looked at got stuck in my head: Gymnasium Chases, in which Boltanski extracted and manipulated images of students from a Jewish high school in Vienna. One would expect that his technique of singling out individual pictures would enhance the students’ uniqueness, their specific characters; instead, Boltanski chose to bloat up the faces beyond recognition. In addition, by extracting solitary faces, he took them out of the only context in which they still exist. Today, probably nobody would recognize any of the people in these pictures from the 1930s; their identities are unknown, their only purpose is to be part of a photograph of “the graduating class of 1931.”

Boltanski’s work made me think of a project which my class did in our last year of high school. In Germany, students leave primary school after the fourth grade and go on to different types of secondary schools. In my case, the type of school was a Gymnasium, from which people graduate after 9 years. In fifth grade everyone is put into classes of 20-30 students; in our case, there were three of them (5Ga, 5Gb, 5Gc). The students of one class have a classroom that is assigned to them, and they have most courses together as a group. This means that people will identify with their class as the group of people they belong to and are associated with.

The project we did in our graduation year was for our yearbook. We took class portraits from fifth grade and tried to recreate them with the people who were still there, only 9 years older. It was almost moving to see the results: So many people had left (they moved away, transferred to others schools, or had to repeat years because of bad grades), which created lots of gaps. In some cases there were more gaps than in others: compared to 5Gc, 5Gb was almost still complete. In addition, a picture was taken of the people who had joined as in later years. Somebody added the names of the people who were “missing” in each picture; I must confess that in many cases I have no idea who these people were, especially if they were from other classes than my own, and I have almost forgotten about some other people. Notice that not only the people have changed but the school grounds, too: A new building was added, and a sitting area was added in the garden.

All of us students were part of this group, our class. But what is this unit if, after nine years “together,” only about half of the people are left? And what about the people who were added to the classes in later years (and are in the portraits of later years)? Are they not full-fledged members of these groups? After all, this identity as part of a class was assigned to us very randomly, and it is very transient. It is too easy for the names of the people in the class portraits to get lost (many had to be looked up for the project because they were not remembered), and if that happens, then all that remains is a photograph of a group of people, and this arbitrary assignment will be our only identity.


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