Miroslaw Balka and Samuel Beckett: How It Is

Art exhibition at Tate Modern in London
Miroslaw Balka, 'How It Is' in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

Journalists and critics have reviewed Miroslaw Balka's current exhibition at Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in London, drawing comparisons with the work of one of the artist's influences, Samuel Beckett. I would like to suggest that Beckett plays a profoundly influential role in Balka's work, specifically as a kind of limit-point in a crisis of representation.

Beckett's writing indirectly broaches some of the key philosophical and historical issues of the twentieth-century, and I think that Balka's work is ambitiously attempting to tread a similar path. One might argue that the Holocaust is never far away from Beckett's work, and some may read his prose text How It Is, as a kind of post-war critique of the so-called Enlightenment man. With this in mind, it is interesting to see why Beckett's work might have felt appropriate to Balka's project: an everyday evocation of being that becomes an absurd portrait of an absurd world.

But How It Is is not the first time Balka's art has held an affinity with Samuel Beckett. One of his recent short films, Bambi (Winterreise), not only deals with the difficult issue of Holocaust representation, but happens to invoke Schubert's piece, 'Wintereisse', translated into English as 'Winter Journey'. Balka's title is apt and self-contained, but it's interesting to note that Schubert's 'Wintereisse' held a particularly strong grip on Beckett's later prose work: a fact well-documented by critics, not least the authorized biographer James Knowlson, who used 'Winter Journey' as the title of his final chapter on Beckett's life.

I am interested in the potential of Miroslaw Balka's work, whether it is in audacious and literate sculptural pieces, or tranquil yet disturbing short films. Balka has been quoted as saying he would like How It Is to provide a 'space for contemplation' for those who visit and step inside. I can't help wondering what it is he hopes they will be contemplating. There is something about How It Is that denies the contemplative comforts of Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project, previously commissioned by Tate Modern. I suspect that How It Is is closer to a darker, more troubling vision of the world. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if visitors leave the exhibition feeling slightly uneasy, tiptoeing out into the daylight preoccupied with thoughts of mortality and twentieth-century horror.

Press Release:
Tate Modern today unveils the tenth annual commission in The Unilever Series, How It Is by Miroslaw Balka. The artist has created a large steel sculpture, which cleverly responds to the architecture of the Turbine Hall. A chamber of monumental scale, the steel structure stands 13 metres high, 10 metres wide and 30 metres long.

On first entering the Turbine Hall visitors will be confronted with the end wall of the sculpture. Reminiscent of a giant shipping container it is mounted on supports two metres high so that visitors can walk underneath, before entering the sculpture via a ramp. The interior is pitch dark, provoking a sense of unease. The steel construction of the chamber adds a sound element to the work, with the sounds of those inside the space resonating both within and below the structure. The blackness of the interior will contrast sharply with the day-lit Turbine Hall.

Balka intends to provide an experience for visitors which is both personal and collective; creating a range of sensory and emotional experiences through sound, touch, contrasting light and darkness. Whether approaching the piece individually or negotiating it with others, it may provoke feelings of apprehension, solidarity, excitement or intrigue. Staring ahead into the black void of How It Is may make you wonder whether to move ahead at all. Yet rather than forming a stage or spectacle, the container focuses you inwards, both physically and psychologically, as you enter into the darkness. The structure simultaneously embodies the unknown and the familiar.

The title of the installation, which is inspired by Samuel Beckett’s novel ‘How It Is’, is intentionally open, allowing for diverse interpretations. As Balka explains, “You can shape this yourself. The shape you create is not just about your body, it’s about your mind”. In How It Is, Balka alludes to a myriad of ideas and references, from the allegory of Plato’s Cave, the biblical Plague of Darkness, black holes, images of hell and Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde 1866 to Malevich’s Black Square 1915. [Read More]

[...] The title, How It Is, is taken from Samuel Beckett's novel of the same name and Balka said the piece should be seen as being about everything and nothing. "There is no one single direct inspiration for the piece and the words of the artist are not so important. The work is important. It is good or bad. It works or it does not work."

Balka said he was using it as a space for contemplation and hoped others would do the same, just as people repeatedly visited Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project in 2003, often lying on their backs and gazing up to the sun. [Read More]

[...] Balka has also covered some of the Turbine Hall's skylights, reducing the overall light level, and the looming darkness inside the steel structure feels both palpable and impenetrable. There is nothing here except the contained dark, which itself seems to have mass and density, weight and substance. The title invokes the dark and mud of Samuel Beckett's 1961 prose work How It Is, all the endless crawling, yard after yard, towards nothing at all. One searches for limits, as if they might offer some kind of comfort. Instead, the containment makes you feel even more puny. It is a space whose limits are sheer walls instead of a horizon, with more blackness overhead. It is a darkness you struggle to measure, or rather a darkness that measures you.

Slowly, your eyes adjust to the light leaking in, the slight reflectivity of the steel floor, the thin light brushing the felt-covered walls. You expect echoes, but there aren't any. Hell is the people in here with you. An absolute simplicity stops it being another of art's tunnels of love or mystery trains, although one wonders what kinds of games people will play here. [Read More]

The exhibition runs until 5 April 2010.