Mirosław Bałka, photo: Włodzimierz Wasyluk
Mirosław Bałka, photo: Włodzimierz Wasyluk

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. Balka'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, Balka came into this world surrounded by that war's consequences.

First Communion Souvenir

Mirosław Bałka, "Św. Wojciech", 1987, coll. Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi., photo: Piotr Tomczyk
Mirosław Bałka, "Św. Wojciech", 1987, coll. Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi., photo: Piotr Tomczyk

Between 1980-1985 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 Bieremiennost' (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 Balka'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 Muzeum Sztuki 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 took part in the New Expression movement, using concrete and jute to make metaphorical figurative sculptures and sculptural compositions. 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). Man and his existence were shown here in the perspective of a dramatic opposition between the physical and the spiritual.

Venice Biennale

Mirosław Bałka, "BlueGasEyes", 2004, photo courtesy of Gladstone Gallery NY and Brussels, CCA Warsaw
Mirosław Bałka, "BlueGasEyes", 2004, photo courtesy of Gladstone Gallery NY and Brussels, CCA Warsaw

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 (Galeria Dziekanka, 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 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, Galeria Foksal 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.


"Bambi", 2003, fragment of video-installation "Winterreise". Copyright of the artist, courtesy of the Gladstone Gallery, New York
"Bambi", 2003, fragment of video-installation "Winterreise". Copyright of the artist, courtesy of the Gladstone Gallery, New York

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 Cracow's Galeria Starmach, 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.

More photos (19)

Selected solo exhibitions:

  • 1985 - "First Communion Souvenir", Żuków (graduation project)
  • 1986 - "Wilki niewilki", TPSP, Warsaw
  • 1990
    - "Good God", Galeria Dziekanka, Warsaw
    - Galerie Nordenhake, Stockholm
  • 1991
    - "Stichting De Apple", Amsterdam
    - "April / My body cannot do everything I ask for", Galeria Foksal, Warsaw
  • 1992 - "36,6", The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago, Chicago
  • 1994 - "Rampa", Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź
  • 1999 - "sza", Galeria Foksal, Warsaw
  • 2000
    - "Quit", White Cube, London
    - "Between Meals", The National Museum of Art, Osaka
  • 2001
    - Around 21 stopni 15'00''E 52 stopni 09'17''N +Go-Go (1985-2001), Zachęta, Warsaw
    - "swept, swept, swept", Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York
  • 2002 - "Nachtruhe", Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin
  • 2003
    - "Winterreise", Galeria Starmach, Cracow
    - "Lebensraum", Fundacja Galerii Foksal, Warsaw
    - "Still", Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco
  • 2004
    - "Su Seguro Servidor", Galeria Juana de Aizpuru, Madrid
    - "Karma", White Cube, London
    - "Neither", Gladstone Gallery, New York, USA
    - "Bon voyage", Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain, Strasbourg, France
  • 2005
    - "Kein Warum", Galerie Naurdenhake, Berlin
    - "Hipnoza", Galeria Arsenal, Bialystok, Poland
  • 2006 - "Force of Light", K21, Düsseldorf
  • 2007
    - Museum of Contemporary Art, Rijeka
    - "Schmerzstillend", Raffaella Cortese, Milan
    - "Tristes tropiques", Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
  • 2008
    - "La Salida", Galeria Juana de Aizpuru, Madrid
    - "Entering Paradise", National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
    - White Cube, London
    - "Landschaftsabfälle", Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin
    Miroslaw Balka, WRO Art Center, Wrocław, Poland
  • 2009
    - "Nothere", White Cube, London
    - "GRAVITY", University Gallery, University of Massachusetts Amherst, MA
    Gladstone Gallery, New York
    - Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London
  • 2010
    - Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin
    - Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe
    - "Agoganys", Galéria Jana Koniarka, Trnava
    - Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv
  • 2011
    - "Fragment" - CSW Centrum Sztuki Wspolczesnej / Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw

Selected group exhibitions:

  • 1986 - "Ekspresja lat 80.", BWA, Sopot
  • 1987 - "Co słychać?", dawna Fabryka Norblina, Warsaw
  • 1988
    - "Polish Realities, New Art from Poland", Glasgow, Third Eye Centre
    - Łódź, Muzeum Sztuki
  • 1990
    - "Apperto", XLIV Biennale, Venice
    - "Possible Worlds", Sculpture from Europe, Serpentine Gallery, England
  • 1991
    - "Metropolis", Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin
    - "Kunst, Europa", Kunstverein Bonn
  • 1992 - Documenta IX, Kassel, Germany
  • 1993 - XLV Biennale, Venice
  • 1995 - "Rites of Passage. Art for the End of the Century", Tate Gallery, London
  • 1998 - Sao Paulo Biennale
  • 1999
    - The Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art
    - "Generations. Polish Art at the End/Beginning of the Century", St. Petersburg
  • 2000
    - "Negocjatorzy sztuki. Wobec rzeczywistości", CSW Łaźnia, Gdańsk
    - "Scena 2000", Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, Warsaw
  • 2001
    - "Conversation?", from the collection of Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, Athens school of Fine Art, Athens
    - "The Thought Unknown", White Cube, London
    - "Negotiators of Art", Bunkier Sztuki, Krakow
    - "Oblicza smierci", BWA, Katowice
    - "Lugares de la Memoria", EACC, Castellon
    - "Milano Europa 2000", PAC e La Triennale de Milano, Milan
    - "Postawy", BWA, Lublin
    - "Absolut Secret", Espace Tajan, Paris
    - "Biurokracja/Bureaucracy", Galeria Foksal, Warsaw
  • 2003
    - "Rituale", Akadamie der Künste, Berlin
    - "Geljik het leven is, S.M.A.K." – Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Gent
    - "Phantom der Lust. Visionen des Masochismus in der Kunst", Neue Galerie Graz, Graz
    - "The Anxious Creation", Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Palazzo Forti, Verona
    - "Absolut Generations", La Biennale, Palazzo Zenobio, Venice
    - "A Body / A Cialo", ex. with John Coplans, Center of Contemporary Art, Gdansk
    - Galeria Labyrint 2 at the University Gallery, University Gallery, Hertfordshire
    - "Dog in Polish Art", Galeria Arsenal, Bialystok
  • 2004
    - "Eclipse: Towards the Edge of the Visible", White Cube, London
  • 2006
    - "Sublime Embrace: Exploring consciousness in contemporary art", Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario
    - "Ideal City – Invisible Cities
    Zones of Contact", 2006 Biennale of Sydney, Sydney
    - "Still Points of the Turning World", SITE Santa Fe’s 6th International Biennale, New Mexico
    - "The 80's: A Topology", Museau Serralves, Porto
  • 2007
    - Mirosław Bałka, Rafał Jakubowicz, Marzena Nowak, Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv
    - "Come, come, come into my world", Ellipse Foundation, Cascais, Portugal
  • 2008
    - Contemporary Graphics, Galerie & Edition Bode, Nuremberg
    - "Still/Motion" - Liquid Crystal Painting, NMAO, Osaka
    Minimum – maximum, BWA Lublin, Poland
    - "Lustwarande 08" – Wanderland, Fundament Foundations, Tilburg, Netherlands
    - "Involved", ShanghART H-Space, Shanghai, China
  • 2009
    - Edition Copenhagen - Retrospective 1959 - 2009, Den frie udstilling, Copenhagen, Denmark
    - "I Could Live in Africa" - Ursula Blickle Stiftung, Kraichtal-Unteröwisheim
  • 2010
    - "The APOGEUM New Expression 1987", Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu, Torun
    - "Höhepunkte der Kölner KunstFilmBiennale",  Kunst-Werke Berlin - KW Institute for Contemporary Art , Berlin
    - "LET’S TALK ABOUT HOUSES: When Art Speaks Architecture [Constructing, Deconstructing, Dwelling] / Floor 2, 2A and Sculptu", MNAC - Museu do Chiado, Lisbon
    - Luc Tuymans: A vision of Central Europe - Brugge Centraal, Bruges
    - "I Could Live in Africa", Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie / Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw
    - "Kupferstichkabinett: Between Thought and Action" - White Cube - Hoxton Square, London (England)
    - "Things evoke feelings" - CSW Centrum Sztuki Wspolczesnej / Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
    - "Word Pictures: Talking films" - Platan Galeria - Polish Institute in Budapest, Budapest
    - "Building Memory" – four films about architecture, monuments and community - HMKV - Hartware MedienKunstVerein, Dortmund
    - "Morality ACT VII: Of Facts and Fables" - Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam
    - "Morality ACT VI: Remember Humanity" - Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam
    - "A Pair of Left Shoes - Reality Check in Eastern Europe" - MSU Muzej Suvremene Umjetnosti / Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb
    - "Che cosa sono le nuvole? Werke aus der Sammlung Enea Righi" - MUSEION - Museum für moderne und zeitgenössische Kunst , Bolzano
    - "Building Memory. Bałka, Bartana, Narkevicius, Odenbach" - ms - Muzeum Sztuki Lodz, Lodz
    - "Morality ACT IV: I could live in Africa" - Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam
  • 2011
    - "Litos Grafera", KunstCentret Silkeborg Bad, Denmark

Author: Ewa Gorządek, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, September 2004, updated 2010