from 16 March 2017 to 30 July 2017 – space: NAVATE
“CROSSOVER/S” is the first Italian retrospective by Miroslaw Balka (Warsaw, 1958), one of the leading artists of the last three decades, whose work explores human nature as well as individual and collective memory. Reflecting on the history of Europe and especially of Poland, his birthplace and home, Balka draws on autobiographical elements and episodes to create works that address universal themes in a powerfully evocative way.
Relevant in his practice is the human figure. Even the titles of his artworks—often constituted by long arithmetic sequences—are taken after the artist’s height. In the early 1990s, Balka abandoned anthropomorphic forms to concentrate on depicting symbolic objects like beds, pedestals and fountains, in works that allude to the human presence without ever portraying it. These works are frequently realized with ordinary materials like wood, salt, ashes, soap, cement and steel.
The exhibition at Pirelli HangarBicocca brings together eighteen sculptures, installations, and videos made during the last twenty years and leads visitors through an immersive journey full of physical, symbolic, and temporal intersections, where light and darkness take on a key role and where visitors are invited to experience the works on show through all their senses.
Location: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Artist: Miroslaw Balka
Allestiment: curated by Vicente Todolí
Engineering: MOSAE srl
Team: Michele Maddalo, Alice Brugnerotto, Anna Colombo. Special consultant Stefano Monaco
Photo: Attilio Maranzano
Courtesy: Miroslaw Balka and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Pictures in slideshow: from the exhibition
Holding the Horizon, 2016
In its simplicity, Holding the Horizon displays a horizontal yellow line running along a black background. Located on the wall of the entrance to the exhibition space, the artwork dialogues with the monumentality of the surrounding environment, and as its title suggests, defines one of the possible horizons. The continuous, unchanging flow of the line is perceptible only thanks to the imperfection of the shot, which reveals the fragility of the moment described and at the same time highlights the intensity of the gesture.
Balka began using video as an expressive media in 1998, when compact, handheld video cameras first became widely available. Just as with the use of daily materials and objects for his sculpture, the artist intends the use of video camera as a potential extension of his body. His videos are marked by a strong recognizable character: they are not edited, and remain fragmentary, made of brief and continuously reiterated sequences on the screen, making it impossible to define a beginning or ending. «The camera is for me a sort of vacuum cleaner,» explains the artist. «I choose places that I want to vacuum, I collect some dirt or other objects that I don’t recognize and which are scattered around this place. Then, I come home, take out the bag from the vacuum cleaner and pour all that out onto a big table. I sift through it and choose. Later, I display these found fragments in such a way that they will be noticed.»
The same approach can be found in all Balka’s videos, where the immateriality of the image is often correlated with the space and display modalities. In the other two video projections in the exhibition—BlueGasEyes and mapL—the artist overturns classical frontal cinematography, projecting the images on the flooring of a metallic structure filled with salt. This last element is intrinsically connected to the materiality of the human body: in addition to maintaining and conserving organic forms, salt is also a symbol of purity.
Like an outsized drawing, mapL displays the floor plan of the city of Lublin, where the places of mass murders and executions are indicated by red and black rectangles. The shapes, colors and discontinuous movement of the camera evoke the distinct aesthetic approaches of Constructivism, an artistic current born in Russia in 1917 and concerned with the elaboration of an art with a strong social commitment. With mapL, Balka investigates the expressive languages usually associated with the propaganda adopted by totalitarian regimes over the course of history, which appropriated abstract visual forms to communicate ideological messages.
Set near the perimeter wall of the Navate, the double projection BlueGasEyes, on the other hand, leads the viewer into a domestic atmosphere. The video shows two lit burners, the images of which sometimes appear unstable and out of focus. Visual experience of the artwork is set in direct relation with the way the images were filmed: the heat of the flame conditioned the resistance of the artist’s hands during filming, as a consequence altering the shot itself. The sound produced by the burning gas also helps to amplify the precariousness of the scene.
Common Ground, 2013/2016
The installation is composed of 178 doormats collected by the artist, in exchange for new ones, from houses in poor neighborhoods in Krakow. They are set on the exhibition floor to form a single carpet: Common Ground is a reflection on the idea of the threshold, a recurring theme in Balka’s oeuvre. An everyday object like a doormat, used symbolically to mark the passage and boundary between an external public dimension and an internal, private one, loses its original role as an element of transit and comes to be seen as an impassable space; an area of separation. Through this expedient the artist takes his investigation deeper into the meaning of the intimate, domestic dimension in relation to potential intrusions.
Wege zur Behandlung von Schmerzen, 2011
Visitors are overpowered by the physical, visual and sonorous strength of this artwork, shaped like a giant metal tank into which a continuous jet of black-tinted water falls, producing an echo that bounces around inside the Navate space in Pirelli HangarBicocca.
The monumentality of this installation calls for a comparison with the other works on display, all of which are smaller in size, leading visitors to interact differently with this installation: the verticality of Wege zur Behandlung von Schmerzen induces them to lift their heads and look up, while the horizontality of Common Ground prompts them to lower the heads to look at the floor.
Presented in 2011 at the Four Domes Pavilion in Wroclaw during the European Culture Congress, Wege zur Behandlung von Schmerzen was conceived by the artist as an “anti-fountain”: the imposing structure and the black—and therefore potentially polluted—water represent a refusal of the idea of public space, where fountains are usually located, as a place for aggregation and celebration.
These characteristics subvert the image of the healing fountain as it is generally presented in literature. As Balka notes, «In most cultures, water from a fountain is also related to healing. In old tales young men leave the family house to search for water from magical wells to save their loved ones from illness and death.»
The German title—literally “Ways to Treat Pain”—reveals how the artist reflects further on this theme, connecting it to a collective memory of past pain that must be rendered evident if it is to be overcome.
To Be, 2014
As with Yellow Nerve, To Be implies verticality and movement. The sound provoked by a metal spring striking the floor attracts visitors’ attention, allowing them to perceive the presence of this mobile sculpture suspended in the space. The entire spring is in constant, sinuous movement, progressively accumulating intensity and energy until these are discharged with one swift blow to the floor. This cycle of alternating calm and tense moments seems to evoke possible, hidden states of violence.
Conceived in 2007 for the external spaces of the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro, the work is made of two long corridors delimited by steel grills that intersect to form a cross— cruzamento in Portuguese.
Starting from an urban context, the artist readapted this sculpture for the museum spaces of the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe for his exhibition “Wir sehen dich” in 2010, creating a corridor that runs for over 100 meters and crosses through the eight gallery spaces dedicated to early German painting. Cruzamento modifies the way the paintings are viewed by visitors, who can only access the rooms through predefined entryways, or admire artworks through the metallic grills. The spatial layout within which visitors are forced to move highlights their physical presence in the exhibition space and opens up new relationships with the subjects portrayed in the paintings, primarily sacred and religious artworks.
In Pirelli HangarBicocca, Cruzamento is located at the center of the Navate, interrupting the way the space is usually experienced and altering the established visitor/artwork relationship. Crossing the threshold of the structure, visitors are struck by a strong gust of air produced by five industrial fans, an invisible “shower” that makes them aware of the transition they are undertaking. Talking about this specific moment, the artist says: «this is a bit like purification, you clean your body.»
Starting in the 1990s, Balka realized passageways, corridors and walkways that lead visitors from one point to another in the exhibition space, functioning both as thresholds and as elements of suspension. Even Cruzamento gives shape to a sort of ritual of transition, underlining the act of walking and viewing and, as is the case with 250 x 700 x 455, ø 41 x 41/Zoo/T, visitors experience the artwork both from inside and from outside: they observe and are observed, thereby playing a dual role.
400 x 250 x 30, 2005
An assemblage of materials—metal and wood—forms this installation, similar to a large mobile platform set on the floor. Visitors are invited to walk on it but, as they cross through it, 400x 250x 30 reveals its inherent instability. Resting on a single hinge, each movement unbalances the structure, challenging the equilibrium of the people crossing it as well as producing a sonorous, rhythmic sequence. Balka creates an experience that highlights man’s fragility and vulnerability, involving the body, its movements and our senses. Visitors are induced «not only to look, but to pay attention to their own movements and their own body.»
7 x 7 x 1010, 2000
Developed vertically within the exhibition space for a total height of over 10 meters, the sculpture was realized by gathering together hundreds of used soaps that belonged to Warsaw inhabitants. By using common household objects that are part of every person’s individual daily rituals, the artist highlights the collective dimension of daily actions, connected with personal intimacy and physicality, as part of care for the body: each individual leaves his or her own traces by touching the soaps that gradually degrade until they ultimately disappear. With 7 x 7 x 1010, Balka evokes anew the memory of the previous owners of these little bars of soap, alluding to their presence in the form of bodily traces, connecting it to that of each visitor, who associates the artwork with a routine at once familiar and private, as well as collective.
250 x 700 x 455, ø 41 x 41 / Zoo / T, 2007/2008
Exhibited for the first time in the courtyard of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin for the artist’s solo exhibition, 250 x 700 x 455, ø 41 x 41/Zoo/T consists of an octagonal metallic structure, the lines and diagonal angles of which remind viewers of a building’s skeleton. A light bulb provides feeble lighting for the artwork and defines its edges, while a recipient filled with red wine stands on the floor. The visitor is placed in relation with the ambiguity of the artwork: thanks to its cage-shaped form it stands as a physical barrier even as it invites the visitor to dare to come inside and explore its components. The artwork is a scale reproduction of a zoo built in 1943 in the Treblinka extermination camp, commissioned by the commander of the SS as entertainment for his family and other officers. The top part hosted a dovecote, while foxes and other large-sized animals were hosted underneath. Working from the few black and white photographs of the structure that survive, Balka reworked the measurements of the original zoo in combination with those of his own body: the height of the structure, for example, corresponds to the maximum height the artist can reach raising his arms over his own head.
250 x 700 x 455, ø 41 x 41/Zoo/T is dense with meaning and crucial themes of Balka’s poetics. Red wine—one of the most iconic symbols of Catholicism, associated with the blood of Christ—is present in a constant flow. The recirculation of liquid is a recurring motif in the artist’s practice, and reminds visitors of the organic functions of the human body. Through the use of specific materials and symbols, the artwork evokes an imaginary connected to the most paradigmatic and tragic moments of European history, and the Holocaust in particular. Without imposing an imagery, the artist invites visitors to reflect upon and physically experience places and moments that no longer exist, underlining one of the most paradoxical aspects of life in an extermination camp: the concept of entertainment.
Soap Corridor, 1995
In 1993 Balka was invited to represent Poland at the 45th Venice Biennale. Among the works he realized for the occasion was Soap Corridor, one of his most iconic artworks. While in the Biennale spaces the artist covered the walls of the entrance corridor to the Polish Pavilion with a thin layer of soap, for “CROSSOVER/S” he is presenting a new version of the artwork, creating an environment whose dimensions are modulated according to those of his own body.
At first glance, Soap Corridor looks like an empty space, but passing through it visitors smell a powerful odor produced by the material covering the walls. Soap is a central element in the artist’s practice, and assumes multiple meanings: it is the first consumer product with which we are cleansed from the moment we are born, but also the last the body comes into contact with, marking two crucial moments of existence.
Reflecting on time and the experience of this artwork, Balka defines this corridor as «a space among spaces that only has two functions: to lead you forward, or lead you back.»