Enlarged photographs of seven young girls are propped atop a stack of unlabeled tin biscuit boxes containing scraps of fabric. These boxes are corroded as if marked by time and are infused with symbolic associations—they evoke reliquary boxes, archival containers, and funerary urns. The black-and-white photographs connote another era; out of focus, they constitute a visual analogy to memory, fading over time. Electric lights illuminate the seven faces like devotional candles, underscoring the effect of a memorial, an orchestration of signifiers indicating loss and remembrance. Old photographs, the tension between individuality and sameness, and the implication of vast numbers evoke the tragedy of the Holocaust.
However, the girls pictured are not victims of genocide: the photographs, of anonymous children, were culled from magazines and newspapers. The boxes are not truly old, and the cloth contained in them is generic and has no special origin. Boltanski creates an atmosphere of general, unspecified mourning through means—photographs, relics—traditionally valued for their privileged claim to specificity, uniqueness, and authenticity. A vocabulary of documentary signs is used movingly, but deceptively, for symbolic effect.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 86.