The body, memory, transience, private mythology - are the key themes of Bałka's practice, present already in his earliest projects.
The sculptor and interdisiplinary artist's oeuvre is essentially autobiographical, drawing on a personal history shaped by political and religious constraint, but also by symbolic representation: his grandfather was a gravestone cutter and his father engraved the names on the tombstones. Bałka's work is also strongly affected by collective memories of death: 8,000 Jews from his native town of Otwock were dispatched to the death camp of Treblinka in 1942. Born in 1958 in Warsaw, a child of the post-war legacy, Bałka came into this world surrounded by that war's consequences.
In the early 1980s he studied sculpture at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, earning a degree under Prof Jan Kucz in 1985. In 1986, he co-founded, with Mirosław Filonik and Marek Kijewski, an artistic collective called Neue Bieriemiennost' (exhibiting with it till 1989). He began his career with figurative sculpture. Since the 1990s his focus has shifted to more abstract installations but remains concerned with the human body and our existence - central subjects in Bałka's art. Using steel, cement, salt, foam rubber and felt, his ascetic sculptures and sculptural and video installations reflect the precariousness of humanity within the rubble and dirt of earthly existence. The body, memory, vanishing, and creating private mythology are also among his most important themes. Balka's works have been shown at the most important international exhibitions and acquired by for major museum collections worldwide. All the signs, codes, references contained in them, making up the language of Bałka's art, have their roots in the artist's biography and are fully comprehensible only in its context.
In 1995, he received the Polityka Passport award for his original achievements in the field of the fine arts. He is the author of the monument commemorating the victims of the Estonia ferry, erected in Stockholm in 1998. He lives and works in Otwock.
First Communion Souvenir, Bałka's 1985 graduation project, today in the permanent collection of Museum of Art in Łódź, is an almost life-sized coloured-concrete figure of a boy in a First-Communion suit standing by a small table, resting its right hand on its top, preparing for a souvenir photo to be taken. A red heart-shaped pincushion had been attached to the concrete jacket's lapel, and a photograph of a child set into the table top. The graduation project's presentation was a carefully designed event. Bałka invited the professors to an abandoned house in the suburbs. They were taken there by a hired bus, but had to walk the final kilometre on foot. On their way, they were passed by the artist, riding a small bicycle, dressed in a First-Communion suit. Upon entering the house, everyone received a pin they were to insert into the heart-shaped pincushion. The defence of the graduation project, equal to achieving artistic maturity, became a ritual similar to the ceremony confirming one's religious maturity.
In the second half of the 1980s Bałka co-established the Neue Bieriemiennost art group. The group’s name (neue – German for new, bieriemiennost – Russian for pregnancy) reflected the historical location of Poland and the cold-war logic, slowly crumbling in the 1980s. Bałka and two other founders - Mirosław Filonik and Marek Kijewski were connected – as they claimed – by a unique Consciousness sensing the decadence of the moment. Joint exhibitions of Bałka, Filonik and Kijewski usually ridiculed holidays from the communist 'red' calendar – Women’s Day, Victory Day, Miner’s Day... They ironically called themselves K. C. Świadomości Neue Bieriemiennost (The Central Committee for the Consciousness of Neue Bieriemiennost). Their campaigns, performances, sculptures turned the propaganda reality upside down. Among the pieces created at the time were, for instance, Bad News (1986), Fireplace (1986), St. Adalbert (1987), Salt Seller (1988/1989), or Shepherdess (1989).
Around 1990 Bałka changed the language of his artistic expression, abandoning literal representations of the human figure on behalf of a more abstract and ambiguous language. The first piece in which he moved away completely from figuration was Good God (Dziekanka Gallery, Warsaw). Since then, Bałka has consistently used a vocabulary reduced to the simplest forms and means of expression. The human body is present in his works not through its representation, but in an indirect and veiled way.
Since then, signs, traces, dimensions, temperatures, crystallised substances, used materials, sometimes sounds, sometimes aromas, have replaced bodily representations. The body is gone - what remains is corporeality - Jaromir Jedliński
The artist became interested in the forms that accompany the body on its life's path (the bed, the coffin, the urn), and the traces the body leaves (sweat, urine, sperm, tears). In constructing his simple, ascetic objects or installations, Bałka uses the dimensions of his own body, which serve as a fixed module - a standard. This gives his pieces a strongly personal value. It is further emphasised by the special role played in his practice by the family house in Otwock, where the artist grew up and eventually set up his studio. The house, its history, its material layer and dimensions, have been a permanent source of inspiration for the artist. For his 2001 solo show at Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw, Bałka recreated the house's shell in 1:1 scale. Memory, transience, preservation of traces, are the main themes of Bałka's art. Drawing from the source of inner experience, the artist has elevated the elements of personal existence to the rank of a universal message.
The materials with which Bałka creates his works are highly significant. Terrazzo, soap, ash, salt, hair. felt, old planks, rusty rods and sheets, acquire new meanings in the context of a narrative about the human being. Bałka often uses materials with a history, often from his own home. Many of his projects have also employed heat and aromas. At the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993, Bałka showed, among other works, his Soap Corridor and terrazzo slabs electrically heated up to the temperature of the human body. Also the Estonia ferry victims monument in Stockholm, for the design of which Bałka won an international competition in 1998, has a fixed temperature of 37 degrees Celsius.
In 1999, Foksal Gallery showed Bałka's exhibition sza (Hush), which also dealt with the theme of death. The gallery was festooned with paper chains made of newspaper obituaries glued together using bone glue. The artist and the gallery curators made them together the way you make Christmas tree chains. Round holes had been cut out in the windows to let in cold air, and the temperature inside was chilly. The opening featured a show by a group of circus artists, fire eaters, which served as a kind of prelude for a funeral ceremony.
Present in Bałka's wanderings around the repository of collective memory are also echoes of the Holocaust, resounding in the seemingly innocent titles of pieces such as Die Rampe (1994), Selection (1997), or Winterreise (2003). The latter work, originally presented at Kraków's Starmach Gallery, is an effect of Bałka's winter trip to the former site of the Birkenau camp, where he made three videos: Pond, Bambi 1, and Bambi 2. They show the pond where the ashes of the camp's cremated victims were deposited, and roe deer approaching the barbed-wire fence. The videos' projections are accompanied by three objects, the Plates of Hunger, revolving monotonously anti-clockwise. During the opening, Schubert's songs from the Winterreise series were sung, their central theme being human loneliness. In Primitive (2008) he captured two words form an interview between Lanzmann and Suchomel, a guard who worked at Treblinka, which refers to the nature of the death camp and which are endlessly repeated like a strange mantra. The monitor is placed on its side, making the film a hieratic and ghastly portrait of an engineer of death.
Bałka created an installation specifically for White Cube titled 190 x 90 x 4973. A wooden walkway with walls measuring 190cm high (the artist's height) without any ceiling and built from the simplest of common building materials - plywood and scaffolding - creates a claustrophobic tunnel. The tunnel begins at the entrance of the gallery allowing the viewer no other option than to walk through it although there is no visible destination, referencing 'Schlauch' at Treblinka, a narrow path that connected the area where the inmates were forced to undress with the area housing the gas chambers, where they were then exterminated. The path was lined with barbed wire and disguised with pine tree branches so no one could see its function from within the camp. The installation makes the viewer feel the presence of an altogether more powerful force that seems to organise our physical movement against our own freewill, and is an emphatic negation of the gallery space.
In 2009 his work How It Is was commissioned by the Tate Modern Gallery in London as part of the Unilever Series. The giant grey steel structure with a vast dark chamber is piece that lies between sculpture and architecture, on 2-metre stilts, it stands 13 metres high and 30 metres long. Visitors can walk underneath it, listening to the echoing sound of footsteps on steel, or enter via a ramp into a pitch black interior, creating a sense of unease. Once again this work alludes to recent Polish history – the ramp at the entrance to the Ghetto in Warsaw, or the trucks which took Jews away to the camps of Treblinka or Auschwitz, for example. By entering the dark space, visitors follow in the footsteps of those in history who have put their trust in an individual or organisation, but never really knowing where they will end up, like the victims of the genocide of World War II or even the immigrants of the 20th and 21st centuries. According to Tate Modern curators Bałka's intention was to provide an experience for visitors which is both personal and collective, creating a range of sensory and emotional experiences through sound, contrasting light and shade, individual experience and awareness of others, perhaps provoking feelings of apprehension, excitement or intrigue.
In 2011, Bałka presented a large and carefully arranged selection of video works at the exhibition Fragment at the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw.
For the show, I wanted a title that would mean the same in different languages, for the exhibition will travel - he explains. - It used to be a whole, but it fell apart, fell to pieces. It seems that you can embrace it, but the memory is unreliable and what you can retrieve is merely a fragment.
It was the first retrospective and comprehensive exhibition of Bałka's video work. It presented his film installations from the last twelve years of his career: from the oldest, made in 1998, to the latest, from 2010, presented for the first time to the public. The exhibition included the best-known films that have already become the classics of modern art, such as Winterreise (2003), Carrousel (2004), which was purchased in 2010 by the Tate Modern for its collection and BlueGasEyes (2004). The audience had a chance to see lesser - known works as well as entirely new creations, notably Bottom (1999/2003) Narayama (2002), Michelangelo Buonarotti Reading (2004), Flagellare A, B, C (2009), and Apple T. (2009/2010). All video installations were displayed in a dimly-lighted rooms carefully designed by the artist. The screens were mounted at different angles on the walls and floor. Some of the videos were screened on surfaces covered with salt. Bałka's short and minimalist film installations last from few to several seconds. The artist is reluctant to long and extensive film forms.
My understanding of art is closer to the essence of a haiku or to Białoszewskis' 'noises, patchworks, strings', and not, to Sienkiewicz. Video is like a vacuum that sucks in everything - he says.
The exhibition was also shown at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin (2011) and at the Centre for Contemporary Art Vinzavod in Moscow (2013). Due to the artist's announced departure from video art, the show can be seen as the summary of Bałka's work with this medium.
Since 2011 Mirosław Bałka runs the Studio of Spatial Activities at Department of Media at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. He is a member of Akademie Der Kunste, Berlin.
For group and outdoor exhibitions, please see artist's website: miroslaw-balka.com
Author: Ewa Gorządek, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, September 2004, updated 2010, 2015 GS