A Boy and an Eagle – Mirosław Bałka
Mirosław Bałka's sculpture A Boy and an Eagle was created especially for the Sculptures in the Garden exhibition, organised by Anda Rottenberg in 1988 in a park adjacent to a pavilion of the Association of Polish Architects (SARP).
The exhibition referred to another acclaimed show that took place thirty years earlier in the same place and under the same title. Anda Rottenberg invited sculptors from various generations to produce objects for the park's open-air space. Barbara Zbrożyna was the only artist to take part in both shows. The new exhibition also featured presentations by artists who debuted in the 1960s, such as Elżbieta and Emil Cieślar, or Grzegorz Kowalski. However, it was the youngest generation of artists, for whom this was one of the first opportunities for a confrontation with their slightly older colleagues, that has turned out to be the most memorable. These included, for instance, artists associated with the groups Koło Klipsa from Poznań (Paweł Kruk, Piotr Kurka), and Neue Bieremiennost' from Warsaw. The latter was represented by, apart from Marek Kijewski Mirosław Filonik, and Mirosław Bałka.
Bałka, who was gaining increasing recognition, still had his first big success ahead of him. Soon, beginning with the breakthrough exhibition Good God taking place in 1990, he would completely abandon figuration for the sake of more synthetic sculptures that used abstract forms, referencing the body, of the artist himself as well. It is no coincidence that Selma Klein Essink titled her essay devoted to Bałka's oeuvre Mankind the Measure of All Things.
Julian Heynen wrote that:
he proportions of the works link them decidedly to the human figure, not by depicting it but by respecting the dimensions that are peculiarly mankind's. No piece is so significantly larger than human as to dominate. The objects are within reach of the human body, more partner than simply something other, however full of questions individual pieces may be. To take up that proportion and maintain it means to take up contact and establish links. In the proportions there lies something like a trust that sculptures can still be an interlocutor, a response to the viewer as a body and a person.
Dimensions thus became the works' titles.
Bałka's figurative works from the 1980s, such as Kein, Shepherdess, and River, were somewhat different in their nature. They did not confront the viewer to the same degree, instead generating their own closed narratives. The artist said in one of the interviews:
In my earlier works, I used the body in a literal way. A very sensual way. The body of a man, the body of a dog. I think that this resulted from a hunger, or perhaps a proto-hunger for the body. After a while, I was saturated with the human body. I was interested in forms that accompany body and the traces it leaves behind. A bed, a coffin, an urn. It is as though the previous figures died, in a way.
Two of Bałka's sculptures from the 1980s feature the figure of a boy. The first one was his notorious diploma piece, which he defended on 13th June, 1985 in an abandoned rural house in Żuków near Warsaw. Inside, the artist placed a figure of a boy leaning against a table top, in which Bałka embedded a picture from his First Holy Communion.
Remembrance of the First Holy Communion was a self-portrait. It is difficult to regard the sculpture A Boy and an Eagle as a self-portrait, at least in a literal sense. Two concrete figures – a boy of unspecified age and a sitting eagle – stand opposite each other in a shallow steel pool. The bird's eyes eject streams of water that spray the boy's feet. However, the latter – weedy, naked, standing ramrod straight, but nevertheless unconfidently – directs his face towards the sky.
This scene is a loose allusion to the mythical story of Ganymede, who was tempted by Zeus in the form of an eagle. The bird is, however, also the national symbol of Poland. In the catalogue for the exhibition Sculptures in the Garden, Bałka included the well-known Polish nursery rhyme “Who are you? A little Pole…,” which all children in Poland need to learn and which almost everyone is able to recite (and which also stresses the national symbolism of an eagle).
The atmosphere of the sculpture also gives away the artist's literary inspirations. When he was creating it, he was immersed in the prose of William S. Burroughs. James Joyce was also one of his favourite authors. In 1987, he created a complex sculpture inspired by the Irish author's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It's title – When You Wet the Bed – is a quotation from the book. In one of the book's first sentences, Joyce described the sensation that accompanied the wetting of a bed: “When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold.” Peter Schjeldahl described the sculpture:
Two rusted pipes close together and upright against a wall stop at eye level. They are filled, Bałka fancies, with tears. Short sections of pipe set in the floor are for him positive forms of the negative spaces made by the act, mysteriously satisfying to a boy, of pissing in snow.
A Boy and an Eagle is a confrontation between the artist's childhood experience (just like in Joyce's book; assuming that the boy's figure acts as a transfiguration of the artist), a traditionally perceived Polishness, and readings of Burroughs and Joyce. On one hand, the boy is defenceless, and on the other – seems to be supernaturally spirited. Not a child anymore, but not yet a man, he emanates with a subtle eroticism.
Perhaps that is why the sculpture was deemed provocative. When the exhibition in the garden of the SARP's pavilion was devastated by unknown culprits, A Boy and an Eagle was especially harmed. The artist renovated it, however, preserving the traces of the vandalism. The boy's figure lacks an ear and a hand. He carries the scars of that life lesson to this day.
A Boy and an Eagle
The collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, December 2009, transl. Ania Micińska, December 2015
Quotes from Julian Heynen and Peter Schjeldahl have been sourced from the catalogue: Mirosław Bałka 36,6, ed. Joseph Scanlan, Chicago: The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago, 1992.Culture.pl