Review: Objects Belonging to a Young Man in Oxford

In 1973, Christian Boltanski proposed the idea of an inventory of objects as an exhibition. Fortunately his project was assumed by the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford at the time, Peter Ibsen (one of few who agreed to do so.) Hearing about this exhibition, one initially imagines to be faced with a work that generates some form of nostalgia and perhaps a romantic view of Oxford. On walking in however, the atmosphere that is projected is the exact opposite.  The lighting is an icy blue, the room is stark and so what we actually feel is detachment. All that stands are the two boards of the collection of photos of these, ‘objects belonging to a young man in oxford.’

The exhibition is definitely short and won’t hold one’s attention longer than twenty minutes, making it definitely possible to visit even on a busy weekday. That said, this isn’t an exhibition where you can simply drift between paintings.  In order to appreciate the work, one must analyse and study each image. Perhaps what is most striking is the comparison one naturally makes between oneself and Christ Church’s friend of the 1970s, whose objects we view. The most striking aspect, I would argue, is the overwhelming presence of religiously orientated objects. Books such as, “Pope Paul VI,” and, ‘The imitation of Christ,’ as well objects like a crucifix, both highlight how times have changed and give us a deeper insight into this unknown man.  Yet, it would appear that there are objects that have remained essential.  Razors, cards, after-shave, throat lozenges, a teapot, and photo frames all give us a familiar connection to a world we are unfamiliar with. Adding to our insight are an array of newspaper articles, which show us headlines such as, “Race professor beaten up at LSE,” and “Israel celebrates 25th anniversary,” which also give us the ability to speculate about the concerns of the time. A particularly endearing touch is the newspaper where we find a detailed doodle of a cartoon man skiing. Through these finer details, the exhibition creates a bond of intimacy with its viewer.

It is clear that this exhibition has been popular, with different inventories being displayed in Germany, Jerusalem, Denmark, Paris and of course Oxford. Interestingly, the Oxford inventory is the only one of the five to display the collection through photography, rather than the original physical objects. If I were to criticize a part of the exhibition it would surely be this aspect. Considering that the idea here was to build up an image of a person through these objects, tangible items would certainly add to the depth of Boltanksi’s work. Overall, however, this exhibition is wonderful. Its pure simplicity leaves its interpretation somewhat subjective, yet there is a subtlety to it. This subtlety gives the exhibition inherent warmth – which the setup of the room contrasts completely. Most importantly, it indirectly pushes viewers to actually think for themselves. This is surely a positive, and so this exhibition is definitely worth a visit.

Image Credit: Modern Art Oxford