Monday, 12 April 2010

To infinity and beyond: Miroslaw Balka 'This is How It Is'

Mirosław Bałka, 'This is How It Is', photograph copyright Margaret Sharrow 2010

Mirosław Bałka

This is How It Is

The Unilever Series

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern

Until 5 April 2010

A vast, black, metal chamber. A staircase to the viewing platform lets you see it at eye level, as it were. Its eye level. 

Raised up on stilts above the Turbine Hall's sloping floor, you can walk under it, between its legs, smacking its underbelly with an umbrella, as one man did, with a cold unbell-like ring. 

Go round the back end, where it is open, and proceed up the ramp into its black inside. 

Once the walls envelop your peripheral vision, it is darker than most photographic darkrooms. No chink of light seeps in, unless reflected off a person ahead, cautiously inching their way into the void. You follow.

It appears to be about darkness; but it is also about light. When you turn around, or anxiously look back (which feels like cheating, like being Lot's wife), you are rewarded with the diffuse brilliance of the outside world: persons in the box are dark shadows, but beyond, a wall of light, even at night. 

On a small plinth lost alongside the sheer mass of this piece is a tattered catalogue detailing many of Bałka's influences. The first one that popped out at me was Dante's Inferno, an illustration of the nine-leveled pit of hell with Dante's progression of increasingly intense sins. 

I had thought it would be an interesting counterpoint to Cildo Meireles' final installation at Tate Modern last year: two evocations of what the eighteenth-century critic would have called the sublime. Both involved a walk into the unknown; both hinted at a specific human cruelty - Bałka's the cattlecarts of the Holocaust, Meireles' the oppression of pollution - or perhaps the gas chambers. Ultimately Miereles' piece was the more terrifying in my experience, but when I was there a group of people were visible sitting on the floor in a circle, deep inside the piece. So my steps into the void had a kind of perspective, a knowledge of how far I could go. But past them? It was hard not to believe that the next step would not plunge me over a precipice, over an unseen edge. My brain helpfully suggested, 'Health and safety. The Tate couldn't let visitors just step into nothing, and fall. You've seen the outside of the box: there is no hole, no edge. It is a container; you are contained.' 

My primitive brain, the undomesticated one with no knowledge of laws, seat belts or the safety of roller coasters, remained utterly unconvinced. 

Link to Bałka on Tate Modern website

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