The Observer - Art

'Let your fingers do the looking'
Christian Boltanski's hands-on phone books spark a thousand stories while Dryden Goodwin takes voyeurism to new heights

Laura Cumming
Sunday April 7, 2002

Art has its uses - often strange and unexpected, but rarely quite as literal as this one. A member of the public is visiting a London gallery stacked with international telephone directories when he chances on the phone book for Guyana. After a few minutes of rapid leafing, he cries out with such delight that the other visitors immediately gather. Among the cramped and inky listings, it seems he has discovered the name and number of a long-lost half sister. The number may be wrong, for the directory is three years out of date. But here is authentic, documentary proof of her existence. Although none of us can quite explain the joy he feels, we understand and even share it. Somehow, in this library of unreliable and obsolete books, a brother and sister have been momentarily reunited.

Were it not for the fact that these books are real, dog-eared and worn, one wouldn't quite call this a library at all. Especially since it is an installation by the French artist Christian Boltanski. The furniture looks appropriate - ladders, shelves, tables, chairs - but all painted a theatrical matt black. Above the tables, the filaments of low-watt lightbulbs give off a faint golden glimmer just bright enough to read by, not enough to dispel the sepulchral darkness. For this is a catacomb of sorts: old names, old numbers, the recently dead still listed among the living. And all around us disembodied voices murmur a continuous roll-call: a memorial, perhaps, to the lost, the unknown or departed.

The first thing that strikes you about Boltanski's array of international telephone directories is just how little space they occupy: the whole world encompassed in a single gallery. Until, of course, you consider how many billions of people have no telephone, no listing, no network in their country - absent presences implied by the empty shelves for Afghanistan or Western Sahara. Saudi Arabia has many books, Iran only one, Ethiopia a tiny dossier not much bigger than the directory for St Helena. Yet there are surprises: more than a hundred volumes for Britain, but a scant 11 for all of Australia.

It is impossible not to read some expression of a nation in its telephone directory. Syria, gold-tooled and leather-bound, has a colour portrait of Assad on the cover. Italy uses a different renaissance masterpiece on each book; Germany has watercolours by children, all very Rudolf Steiner. Libya prints technical drawings of masts and satellites on every other page, as if the phone system were a matter of national pride. In Ghana, the emergency numbers include the Accra Hilton. Top of the list in Mauritius is Domestic Violence.

Here are the legacies of imperialism - almost every book is in Spanish, French or English. 'A little ad does all the trick' boasts the one for Lahore. Advertisements for Agrico in Ghana are illustrated with engravings of pump-sets and grinding mills taken from some Industrial Revolution manual. You look for your family name in the furthest-flung places. You find the Smith and Jones of every nation: the Chands of Fiji, the Johanssons of Iceland. And the mind travels, transported entirely by proper nouns: run your eye down the listings for Hawaii - Azure Cruises, Beachcomber Crabs, the Elixir Hotel - and you are spirited from this cold grey island in seconds.

But this is an installation, not an official repository and it gradually becomes apparent that Boltanski's selection is as unreliable as the directories themselves. There are no books for Sydney, none for the vast population of North Korea. Boltanksi claims that the soundtrack represents the entire electoral register for two square miles around the gallery, yet none of the local voters I know are listed in the roll-call - in which, moreover, the artist's own name quite improbably appears. The room is full of fact, some of it verifiable, some of missing, some of it partial or specious: all of it proposing the emotional, if deceptive power of evidence.

In the Seventies, Boltanski used to exhibit the 'documents' of his own life, letters, scraps, locks of hair, photographs of himself as a child that turned out to be nothing of the sort. Later, he began to commemorate the lives of other people - 'The Dead Swiss', 'The Children of Dijon' - using photographs cut from obituaries, heaps of old clothes and tin boxes that might, or might not have been full of personal effects. False memories, you could say, especially since the dead were always anonymous. But irresistibly powerful to the sympathetic mind, which can hardly help reconstructing the life from the smallest and most trivial of relics.

Among which, none seem less emotive or personal than a listing in a public phone book. But who has ever looked up the name of someone desired, or related, or simply far away, without experiencing a strange thrill of intimacy? Or felt dismayed at the stark absence of a listing? Or come across the name of someone dead without a pang of bereavement? The value of a phone book for each user ought to be defined by nothing more than who is in and who is out, yet it holds a greater imaginative potential. Boltanski exploits this potential simply by dramatising the erratic and romantic variety of the world's directories. By the time you have thumbed your way through even a handful, your mind is teeming with other places, other lives.

At Tate Britain, the video artist Dryden Goodwin is also preoccupied with strangers whose existence we can only imagine. But he invades their lives quite directly, filming them by night as they sit at lit office windows like Edward Hopper workers, and using a laser pen to caress their solitary faces.

Closer makes a fine point of distance, focus-pulling between the camera's remote position and the close-up image of each face and jumping between three separate screens. A mounting soundtrack adds tension as Goodwin's unwitting subjects slowly become aware of some watchful presence. Just as the laser dot strokes a man's neck, he scratches the spot. In the final frame, a woman turns directly to the camera and looks straight back at the viewer. The screen becomes a two-way mirror on the world.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002