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“Crossover/s” – the Miroslaw Balka exhibition at HangarBicocca in Milan – starts and ends with a yellow line, tracing a ghostly intersection within which all the other 18 works are arranged.
This Miroslaw Balka show might be the most shadowy exhibition ever hosted in the spaces of HangarBicocca. It’s darkness is pitch black, also in the sense of grievous and gloomy. This artist has something like a penchant for mourning and atonement, which, for example, manifests itself in his use of certain detergent, medicinal or toxic substances. Especially soap (to “purify”, he says, recalling the cleansing of a corpse), salt, boiled wine, gas and water dyed black. The sombre mood also surfaces in the desire to title his works with a series of numbers corresponding to the artist’s measurements accurate to the centimetre, such as his height or arm span. There’s something sinister about all this that evokes the image of a coffin, whose dimensions vary depending on the stature of the deceased.
Balka’s dramaturgy puts man at the centre as the yardstick of all things. Nailed to himself. Of all beings, he is the one most subjected to the laws of gravity. There’s a recurring theme in his work: the tragedy of Nazi death camps. The impervious diabolicalness that inspired them has consistently been expressed in ever-variegated and sublimated images: claustrophobic passages, cages and startled fawns. In the exhibition’s most redolent piece (250 x 700 x 455, Ø 41 x 41 / Zoo / T, 2007/08), this theme appears in the form of a zoo, commissioned, so we are told, by a mad SS commander inside the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, purely for the pleasure of himself and his family (or perhaps to recover a bit of his lost dignity from the foxes and doves).
Balka was born near Treblinka (as is often recalled), in Otwock, a renowned spa town before the war (and perhaps this underlies the recurring water motif). It was in his family home that he made his studio in the early 1990s, after the death of his grandmother. Most of his works have been produced in that studio, which still exists – a house, he once recounted, where many fires occurred, with a tradition of ashes, one might say. It’s interesting to know that Balka obtained a degree in nuclear physics, albeit with little conviction, before enrolling in the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and also that he used to do the high jump, which is all a question of centimetres and going beyond (the crossbar) – “fly or die”, as they say.
Balka’s show at HangarBicocca, titled “Crossover/s” (explained as “physical, symbolic and temporal intersections”), starts and ends with a yellow line. Projected at the entrance, Holding the Horizon (2016) is the unsteady shot of a horizontal wax line. It can only be seen by turning your back and pointing your nose upwards, and you might only notice when you’re leaving. Balka likens it to Atlas, who is burdened by the weight of the world. Yet its quivering can also recall the high-jump crossbar, which sets a height and trembles as the athlete jumps over. Yellow Nerve (2012-15), encountered at the end of the exhibition, instead consists of a thin cotton thread that cuts the inordinate volume of the Cube from floor to ceiling – a long golden hair that shivers as light slips by.
All the other 18 artworks are arranged within this ghostly intersection (i.e. the crossover in the title), traced by the two horizontal and vertical axes of Holding the Horizon and Yellow Nerve. In Balka’s work, the horizontal stands for the lying, dead or sick body, while the vertical stands for the healed, standing body. An intersection within the intersection, Cruzamento (2007, meaning “crossroads” in Portuguese, conceived for the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro) is a steel cage in the shape of a Latin cross that occupies the centre of the exhibition space. Walking along the two arms of the cage, one is hit and trawled by the powerful jet of five fans (your hair and clothes are blown about, and your ears whistle). In the artist’s words, it is a “moment of purification, an invisible shower”.
This isn’t the only corridor to walk along. There’s also the blind alley of 196 x 230 x 141 (2007), with its light bulb that switches on and off when one approaches or moves away. Then there’s the dark corridor that bends to the right, titled 200 x 760 x 500 / The Right Path (2008/15); or the more well-known and penetrating Soap Corridor (1995) with its acrid odour. This is a smaller version of the one exhibited at the Venice Biennale, with the walls veiled in a yellowish layer of soap that reaches 1.90 metres (the height of the artist). In Balka, the labyrinth always leads to the gallows. One has the suspicion of being ushered into a dead end, like sheep to the slaughter. A persistent image in the artist’s work springs to mind here, of deportees being herded towards gas chambers – the Nazi tragedy.
Two other works seem to widen and rummage in this wound: the double projection BlueGasEyes (2004), with its piercing whistle and its focus that flickers above two ordinary lit gas stoves; and the video mapL (2009/10), which draws on a constructivist aesthetic to visualise the places appointed to mass executions on the map of the city of Lublin. Both pieces are reproduced on a sheet of salt, left by hectolitres of evaporated tears. Another work that rummages in the wound is the film Primitive (2008), a clip from the Shoah documentary by Claude Lanzmann, where one sees a guard at Treblinka incessantly repeating “Primitive, yes, primitive, yes” (in reply to the question about conditions in the camp compared to those of Auschwitz).
Meanwhile, a skull is nailed above the gantry of an aisle, which in reality is a motorcycle helmet only visible when illuminated by a torch (15 x 22 x 19 [hard skull], 2006). Balka describes it as “an absent Moon”, representing the same absence that fills an empty orbit. Nearby, a brick miraculously stands upright on a slender metal pole (105 x 25 x 25, 2008); or visitors can balance like tightrope walkers on an unstable platform which is propped up at the centre by a pivot – a slight shift of your weight tips the balance one way or the other (400 x 250 x 30, 2005). Every now and then, a plumber’s spring fixed to the ceiling winds around itself and strikes the floor with a sharp blow like a whip, which twists in the air and climbs along the spine up to the neck. This work, created in 2014, is titled To Be.
All Balka’s work is driven by a fascination with existence, forever poised in delicate equilibrium. Man as a victim or agent of history, castaway or executioner, is continually exhumed and always has the right of asylum. In this exhibition, our first contact is with him: moving aside the curtain that opens onto the Navate space, we feel its warmth and feverish state (produced by a number of heating cables sewn into the drapery which reach the body temperature of 37 degrees Celsius [Unnamed, 2017]). Meanwhile, the human adventure is commemorated in its intimate, precarious and worn-out nature in Wege zur Behandlung von Schmerzen (2011, whose title translates from German as “ways to treat pain”): a titanic fountain with a flow of blacked water that seems anything but curative.
A sense of vacillation also pervades 7 x 7 x 1010 (2000), a kind of memorial stone that reaches the ceiling, composed of used and worn soap bars piled on top of one another (originating from the bathrooms of Warsaw’s inhabitants). “Man is an interlude in the life of soap,” the artist has stated. And here there is all the sense of the vast abyss that is hot on his heels. In this impulse, Common Ground (2013/16), with its reasoning on the idea of thresholds, represents a headlong fall: totally flattened on the ground, it is made of 178 shabby doormats (donated this time by some inhabitants of Cracow in exchange for new ones), arranged side by side to form a sort of communal allotment of withered “welcomes”. In this work above all, moved by the everyday and sepulchral, darkness gains ground and is essential.