Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Miroslaw Balka: How It Is

Tate Modern 13 October 2009 – 5 April 2010.

For the second time in the same afternoon I am about to enter a dark Polish chamber. This time it is the vast grey steel shipping container erected in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall by Polish artist Miroslaw Balka entitled, after Samuel Beckett’s 1964 novel, How It Is. The huge box (30m long x 13m high) is on 2m stilts, which means that you can walk under it, though the feeling that the thing is going to collapse on top of you is quite strong. At the back end is a ramp which leads inside the structure but the darkness within is so profound that visitors soon completely disappear from view as they walk in. Although not quite as literal as Kusmirowski’s Wagon, a life size reproduction of the type of train carriages used to transport prisoners to Auschwitz exhibited at the 4th Berlin Biennale in 2006, allusions to recent Polish history in Balka’s work are clear. The size of the structure is such, though, that the echoes of forced transportation, imprisonment, and obliteration are both outstripped and amplified by the box’s overpowering presence.

Less darkly, ascending the ramp also reminded me of the final scenes of Spielberg’s Close Encounters (1977), where a hatch in the mother ship first disgorges abducted specimens back to earth and then draws in a new wave of curious human explorers. While Spielberg’s spaceship emanates a dazzling and wondrous light, Balka’s aperture spills nothing but darkness, but the strange collective spirit of inquisitive adventure that draws visitors up and into the box, and the giggles of fascinated children, prevents How It Is from being fenced off as an exclusively sombre existential confrontation with unspeakable dread and allows for a more trusting embrace of the unknown not dissimilar to the way Spielberg’s film confounds expectations of what the finale of an aliens-from-outer-space movie ought to deliver.

It is this possibility of levity that saves How It Is from being just plain terrifying, for there is no doubt that there is something astonishing and quite awful about being swallowed by blackness within seconds of entering the container. All sense of distance is lost and while other people can be detected -- by sound, obviously, but also by glimpses of cheek or hand -- it is not clear how close by they are and how far ahead it is possible to walk. I am surprised that I manage to walk more than a few steps without knocking someone over but somehow I keep going until I hit a soft-lined wall. Walking back out toward the ramp seems to take forever and I appear to have developed a form of tunnel vision because the blackness sticks to my eyes for a few minutes after leaving the box.