When one encounters the works of Polish artist, Miroslaw Balka, one almost certainly feels perplexed by his highly minimalist-looking and individuated forms. Apparently, his body of work is a metaphorical language that correlates his art and sensibility with works by the hugely influential precedent set by the late German artist, Joseph Beuys in terms of using simple and specific materials with transcendental and metaphysical properties. In this regard, he fuses his work with personal memories of growing up in post-war Warsaw. He allusively suggests a vision of hell and humanity on Polish land in the past. Hence, Balka’s work is probably not art that holds one’s attention through visual impact but rather art that murmurs his story.
Since his critically acclaimed commission, How It Is, which was one of The Unilever Series at Tate Modern Turbine Hall in 2009, his first solo show in the United Kingdom was featured at the Freud Museum and opened concurrently at White Cube Mason’s Yard in London.1 It is called Die Traumdeutung in reference to the original German title, The Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud, and is an audacious masterpiece that creates an entirely new approach to understanding the aspects of human psychological problems by interpreting the symbolic meaning of dreams in terms of unconscious desires and experiences.2 However, the German title for Balka’s exhibition delivers utterly anagrammatic words with meanings borrowed from other languages by parsing the name of the show into English, ‘Die’ and ‘Trauma’, Latin, ‘Deu’ meaning ‘God’, and ‘Tung’, which means ‘bye’ in Albanian.3 It seems that the title has made much of a nonsensical aim. However, more than the witticism, an elicited aura of mystery about the show is embedded in viewers’ minds with the remembrance of the monumental tragedy of the Holocaust in the Polish national struggle. There is yet impenetrable obscurity, which lies deep beneath the value of the idea and beyond the visual superficiality of Balka’s minimalist sculpture. It seems to allow one to intrude on a certain sense of unresolved grief over the tragedy. It represents, perhaps, the unbearable melancholy of being in another reality. The reality may appear to be perceived as a fundamental form of suffering from an abstruse sense of loss of self—how one can see the irrational fear of abandonment of the vulnerable self and its narcissistic continuum. It is closely associated with the Freudian grief work, ‘Melancholia’, descended as an endless and unexplainable nature of mourning.
The journey of Balka’s site-specific exhibition at the Freud Museum, Die Traumdeutung 75,32m AMSL, was launched with the erection of an eight-metre-high tubing installation called Y-Chromosomal Adam.4 The black fabric sculpture inflates vertically through attachment to a high pressure air blower; it waves uncontrollably in the air in the arable garden at Freud’s last home in London when he was in exile from Nazi-occupied Vienna. The sculpture is bizarrely and unavoidably associated with the phallic symbolism of Freudian dream interpretation. It conjures up a snake, an essential phallic image in Freud’s dream theory, raising its head before striking its prey. Simultaneously, the irresistible nature of the sculpture installation evokes the scene of the long and dark tunnel through which Freud desperately escaped to nowhere from the traumatic persecution of those of Jewish origin by the Nazis in Germany.5 It seems to convey an air of foreboding, leading into Balka’s exhibition in the perpetual quality of Freud’s home, which possesses the trailblazing psychologist’s own rich museological collection of artefacts and his theories on free association and unconscious desire. The fertile atmosphere is soon pervaded grievously with a copy of a letter from Irmfried Eberl, who was a commandant at the Treblinka extermination camp, revealed on a table in the reception area of the house. It was sent on 20 June in 1942 to the commissioner of the Jewish quarter in Warsaw requesting materials for the construction of the camp. The list was a mundane message requesting the delivery of pipes and light bulbs to the camp. However, there is a dark underbelly which produces a surrogate to the straightforward immorality of deporting anyone into such horrendous conditions, notably since a number of Freud’s sisters perished there months later. This list carries with it a historical and penetrating grounding.
Inside the entrance hall, there is a video installation titled Nacht und Nebel (German for Night and Fog) screening footage of a foggy night in a forest near the artist’s studio in January 2014. According to the supplemental literature, the name is a direct reference to ‘Tarnhelm’, which is the magic helmet from Richard Wagner‘s opera, Das Rheingold (1876). In this opera, the dwarf Alberich renounces his passion for the pursuit of infinite power and becomes invisible when he wears the helmet and utters ‘Nacht und Nebel, niemand gleich. Siehst du mich, Bruder?’ (Night and fog, like to no one. Can you see me brother?). The work, in turn, exposes the true cruelty of the Nazi regime, bringing to mind its secret action called Nacht-und-Ne¬bel-Ak¬ti¬on, issued by Adolf Hitler in 1941. Its procedure dictated that all arrests of individuals who had been involved in anti-German activities in occupied countries were made to disappear into the Nazi’s murderous concentration camp system. Thus, the imagery of disappearance featured in this abstract scene makes for a complex and interconnected idea that metaphorically addresses the equal narratives of violence and historical memories in relation to Nazi hegemony.
There is a sudden, yet uneasy, wave of relief from the emotional force of the video work upon hearing a lone man whistling the theme of the film The Great Escape (1963). The sound installation seems to keep turning in an endless loop from a source concealed somewhere deep within the house. It imbues the visitor with an unnerving feeling that is engendered by the encounter with the letter from the SS officer. The whistling is desultorily carried through the heavy silence of the house and fills the space around us. It wanders along the way to the main exhibition in an upstairs room and eventually admits the visitor to Balka’s sculpture installation titled We still need. The visual aspect of the installation comprises a careful arrangement of unfinished, pale blonde plywood boxes, which seem to still be in the process of becoming. It includes a piece of truncated triangular trapezohedron, which is open on one side and at the bottom, so that it draws viewers to put their heads inside and smell the wood. According to a conversation with the artist regarding the purpose of producing this work on private view at the museum, he calculated the number and volume of empty crates specified in the officer’s letter. Their capacity reflects the artist’s measured guess as to what quantity would have been sufficient to contain and transport the requested materials.
Nevertheless, the underwhelming aesthetic appeal of the sculpture installation may lie in its superficial emptiness. It is heavily connected to extreme human situations absorbed in inherently sorrowful mysteries, which constitute that the raw materials of the sculpture are the incarnation of death to desperate victims and the boxes are building blocks representing the unfinished, and in progress, mass genocide. His creation of the work, based on factual accounts and the hypothetical condition, resonates with an unveiled allusion to the message that they still needed the materials for the construction of the camp. At the same time, the chilling aesthetic of Balka’s sculpture is ironically coupled with the successful packing of art objects and publications, as if Freud had brought them from Vienna, which is rather intensely apposite to the theme of the melody piece with resounding triumph of Freud’s great escape from the unethical sacrifice of the Nazi authority’s experiments. It is nuanced, unlike the dispirited sensation of the whistled tune at the beginning of the show. Hence, the work embodies the ultimate form of collision between inevitable melancholy and optimistic escapism, stimulated by viewing the sculpture.
Accompanied with an art historical reference, the wooden trapezohedron in Balka’s installation is apparently reminiscent of one that appeared in a well-known German Renaissance engraving, Melancholia 1 (1514) by Albrecht Dürer. The artist revives the same geometric form Dürer depicted five hundred years ago. Its close identity to Dürer’s trapezohedron is a manifestation of the parallel reality of our tortured psyches toward the shape environed by the recurrently intrusive interrogation of the enigmatic signifiers of the holocaustic presence at the epicentre of Balka’s work. It is as if the agonising personification of Melancholia in Dürer‘s engraving faces the curious piece surrounded by the complex symbolism of the mysterious psychic energy existing in totally insoluble realms. It is then that we become aware of the underlying uncanniness of Balka’s trapezohedron, which comes from a certain irrational fear associated with the invisibility and obscurity of ‘Tarnhelm’; the artist himself also sees that the forms of the two objects bear a strong analogy, eventually making us indulge in esoteric pathos by encountering the mysterious trapezohedron. This encounter summons an atmosphere of profound terror entwined with the fact that Nacht und Nebel prisoners vanished without a trace into the night and fog and were left to fates completely unknown.
The showcase for Die Traumdeutung 25,31m AMSL at White Cube Mason’s Yard explores a different physical experience but appears to present a theme united with the coherent context on view at the Freud Museum. In contrast to the atmospheric sense and weight of history of the museum, the unfilled impression of the white cube space suggests a static and confrontational style without any obstructed views in terms of featuring work. Two concrete sculptures occupy the ground floor; they intensify the tension between the tranquillity of the space and their functionless property, and to that extent, they fulfil a useful function that could serve as a refuge for some kind of living presence or an unexpected exit to another dimension.
The first sculpture, titled TTT, is visually synonymous with Dürer’s shape and echoes the similar wooden version of the sculpture at the museum. Here, the marble-effect of the crafted concrete trapezohedron signifies a conduit of relief from any anxieties and fears as opposed to the portentous object featured at the museum. Thus, the form provokes an impulse of curiosity, perhaps enticing someone to attempt to hide in it.
The other sculpture is a square concrete piece titled 100 x 100 x 20. It is attached firmly to the floor as if it has endured the long passage of time there. It conjures the dual association of a grave plinth and a sealed tunnel entrance to a space below. Two small holes on the sculpture induce an ephemeral sensation of being drawn into it as if by a dark gaze narrowed into an unknown place. The floor-based sculpture might be positioned as a point of dead end, or a doorway to the underworld that leads to perhaps the final departure place for the journey to the exhibition in the lower ground floor.
The end of the show’s journey is at a site-specific installation titled Above your head, situated in the lower ground floor of the gallery. The proportions and volume of the gallery space are redefined through the construction of a steel mesh canopy that has been created out of chain-link fencing. The dark space is bisected horizontally by an immense fence strung from wall to wall so that it covers the entire ceiling at about two metres above the floor. A few spotlights placed above the false ceiling cast a shadow of the mesh on the floor below one’s feet and block the view above one’s head. Thus, the individual viewer feels oppressed by being confined from below and above. The back of the space is extremely dark and has an intimidating air. The ominous position of the resulting space underscores the claustrophobia of imprisonment and a self-conscious experience. It is like being in another reality. Here, the fear that comes from being by oneself in seemingly endless isolation and abandonment is created by a conflicted psychological landscape within the physical confines of the space. Any sense of melancholy in the work is something more than sadness and other than depression. Undoubtedly, this sense pervades almost all of the artist’s presentation. The one contrasting element is the monotonous whistling tune at White Cube that follows from the Freud Museum, evoking the aspiration for freedom by reinforcing the notion of imprisonment.6 It provides a reassuring escape from Above your head back to the real world.
The journey through Balka’s exhibitions creates an interpretation of a dream about one of the worst historical memories in the twentieth century. Its semiotic sense throughout the showcases is quintessentially about trauma and dying, reflecting the artist’s own meaning of Die Traumdeutung. It is underpinned by artistic manipulation that embraces a recurring tension around the boundaries of historical fact related to Freud’s personal tragedy and the Holocaust. It is saturated with the psychological perception of the rawness of Balka’s aesthetic and his minimalist gesture to represent how history can leave traces in the form of abstract artefacts.
The corresponding context of the visual symbolism and theme of the works exhibited in the ostensibly different atmospheres in the separate locations should be considered. The uncanny blank space of White Cube emphasises the distinction between the boldness of the physical presence of the work, evocative of nostalgia and a loss of being, and is filled by the voluminous scale of the installation and the gravity of the sculpture. On the other hand, the subtle impact of the invisibility of the art installation in the rich atmosphere of the Freud Museum renders a considerate attitude bearing the point of strong invisible intervention involved in Freud’s surroundings in terms of exploring the implication of intense inspiration that occurred as a result of the tragic legacy of Hitler’s era. The distinction is influenced in equal measure by the weight of the subject. It is interwoven with an individual’s experience with his or her encounter with Balka’s mythical and memorial works brought about by the psychological and physical depths of the gallery and the museum.
The Polish artist’s two interconnected exhibitions, in which he situates himself within the context of his homeland’s past, must be the illumination of art, ideology and introspection in response to the melancholic markers of people and places now lost. They act, in some ways, as infinite reminders of what should still exist.
5 Adam has been removed from the Freud Museum due to neighbours’ complaints about its noise.
Albrecht Dürer, Melancolia I, an engraving, Germany Signed and dated AD 1514. The British Museum Collections.Fiorini, G, L. (2009). On Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia”. London: Karnac Books.Miroslaw Balka and James Putnam in conversation on DIE TRAUMDEUTUNG 75,32m AMSL, Freud Museum19 March 2014.https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/freud-museum-london/id427403957?mt=2
words: Miseongoa Shin
White Cube, Mason’s Yard, LondonMiroslaw Balka, DIE TRAUMDEUTUNG 25,31m AMSL
21 March – 31 May 2014
for more information visit here
The Freud Museum, London
Miroslaw Balka, DIE TRAUMDEUTUNG 75,32m AMSL
19 March 2014 – 25 May 2014
for more information visit here