Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Thank Christ for the Bomb

Two albums made at the beginning of the 1970s explicitly dealing with the reverberations of world war in the present. One by an English band, the other by a German group. Both draw on potentially controversial iconography and speak to particular constructions of national history and its legacies.

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.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Robert Kusmirowski: Bunker

The Curve, Barbican Art Gallery, London. 30.09.09-10.01.10

The Polish artist Robert Kusmirowski has bunkered The Curve -- the gallery has been converted into a series of rooms and corridors full of broken-down electronic equipment, discoloured documents, old clothes, and piles of old canisters. A draisine runs along a track that seems to go nowhere. Stair-rails are knobbled with rust and everything is covered in a heavy layer of dust. A ventilation system or electricity generator drone fills the space without ever becoming ominous, and some grilled lightbulbs provide just enough illumination to get from room to room.

The gallery attendant briefs me before I enter the bunker. It's quite dark in there, she says, so tread carefully. Don't touch anything. No photography. It is dark in there, in the way cinemas are dark when you go in during the day, or in the manner of a fairground attraction or waxwork exhibit where the creepy theatricality abruptly shuts out natural light and puffs its illusions into the atmosphere. It may just be a seasonal influence, but there is also a whiff of the grotto about the blank entrance to a subterranean world of fantasy. The disorienting effect is sudden in Bunker, and although the fact of the environment’s artifice never completely goes away, the Barbican complex within which the installation is ensconced seems immediately remote and irrelevant. More accurately, the experience is a bit like exiting a shopping mall into the stairwell of a multistory car park or mistakenly getting out of a lift on the maintenance floor. At moments like this, common enough in contemporary urban life, the glare and noise of heavily managed spectacular environments are temporarily cut out and we find ourselves amid the dirt, damp, and acoustic atonalities of the concrete boxes and sheet metal containers that are passed off as public space. This moment, on the threshold of entering Bunker, of anticipation and misrecognition is fleeting but key to the affective power of the kind of immersive environments constructed by Kusmirowski. It is the moment when the security of the art centre is imaginatively breached by the uncanny effect of finding oneself on the other side. Although it is the iconography of World War II and Cold War bunkers -- mid-twentieth century analogue technology, plenty of nuts and bolts, rust, concrete, and grey paint -- that Kusmirowski is drawing on to anchor the piece, the military dimension is downplayed enough for the space to feel like a more generic non-place, a forgotten or irrelevant corner of a large modern urban structure no longer even used by service staff. Walking around the outside of the Barbican in the dying light of a winter afternoon, the feeing is not that different.

The simultaneous proximity and distance of the bunker space to its enfolding environment -- its near- and farness -- is one aspect of the installations capacity to unsettle. Another is its ability to appear utterly authentic and completely phony at the same time. With so many World War II and Cold War bunkers renovated and reconstructed as tourist attractions, part of the strangeness of Bunker is the way it apes real bunkers that now perform as simulations of themselves. Wandering through Kusmirowski’s bunker feels a bit like discovering the remains of a real bunker but also like viewing a staged reconstruction inside a real but decommissioned bunker. The thing that distances Bunker from the tourist bunkers, though, is the dust; the dust and the absence of instructional labels. While the tourist bunker has somehow to create a narrative of redemption out of the remains of a previous site of threat and conflict -- this was a dangerous place, the real bunker must acknowledge, but is now safe and can be consumed as history -- Kusmirowski’s bunker, created within a development built out of the craters of the Blitz, instead concentrates on generating an affectively authentic space out of a collection of unprepossessing and unrelated bits of junk. The tourist bunker is always on the verge of, if not already and necessarily deeply invested in, fetishizing the paraphernalia of the military-industrial institutions it preserves and displays. Bunker gets close to this in the sense that the ghost train dimension of the thing gives it a gothic aura that might be a bit too much. On the other hand, the banality of the stuff strewn around the place -- old bunks and bits of machinery probably pulled out of skips or dragged back from salvage yards -- refuses to offer much to the diligent Jane’s Defence Weekly reader.