Forest of Murmurs

Text by Mána Taylor, Sound by Telo Hoy and Anna Zdobnova

Fall 2021 / Winter 2022 issue

Photograph by Anna Zdobnova

Teshima Island, Japan: 34.490753, 134.086159

The morning after we heard the news that artist Christian Boltanski had passed, in July 2021, my Mother and I decided to listen to him speak. She remembered a lecture that he gave at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015, and we watched the entire video while eating breakfast. He was warm, charming, and funny. He explained his artistic process with such a seamless flow. Even across his thick French accent, I could feel his strong sense of self and purpose. He was an artist who absolutely needed to be an artist.   

While watching and listening to him speak, I immediately remembered that prior to his death, I had received two recordings of the same work of art by Boltanski, “Forest of Murmurs.” My friend Anya had recorded it at Teshima Island, in Japan in the spring of 2018, while Telo had recently recorded the work at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, in New York when we visited in June 2021. I also thought about how the same work of art had been recorded years apart, across continents. It is the same work of art seen by different people and documented at different times, from a different perspective.

Boltanski primarily made art around the themes of chance and spontaneity. He even described this in the talk we watched as an example of his own existence. If his parents “had made love 10 seconds earlier,” he explained, he wouldn’t have been the same person. He does not even think that he would have been an artist if it weren’t for the exact split second that created his existence. I think about this in relation to these recordings. Telo chose to press record at a specific time. It was the fate of us arriving at the museum on a certain day, as well as the separate fate that brought my friend Anya to Teshima Island while studying abroad in Japan, and then choosing to record her own perspective of the artwork within a certain time frame and position. Both of these, prior to Boltanski’s death, prior to my idea of this homage in our magazine. There is something magical about a field recording mostly in the spontaneity of it, as well as how arbitrary it can seem. It is always unknown what will happen in the exact moment one chooses to document surrounding sounds, similar to the split second that a photographer chooses to press on the shutter. 

It is also interesting to note that at the Noguchi museum, Telo and I watched a video of the forest, while Anya was in the actual forest of murmurs when she recorded. She wrote to me “it is situated on Mt. Danyama and unrevealing beautifully. At first, you don’t hear anything, but as you go further up, you start to hear a little from a distance until you arrive at a point when the sounds are all around you.” Because of the sound of the bells, both recordings feel like they were taken at the same time, in the same place.

Christian Boltanski’s art existed as a way to preserve his own memories, and the generational trauma he carried from World War II as both a Jewish and Christian child. He once said “The photo replaces the memory. When someone dies, after a while you can’t visualize them anymore, you only remember them through their pictures.” He will now be remembered through his art, by recordings, by video lectures, and everything else that is simply a documentation and extension of himself. 

Photograph by Telo Hoy

Long Island City, NY: 40.766819, -73.938057