Subject: Miroslaw Balka on his exhibition Fragment and his work.
Date of the conversation: 5th of September 2014
Linked to the commemoration of Operation Market Garden, a failed military intervention during World War II near the Dutch city of Arnhem, the international acclaimed visual artist Miroslaw Balka (Warsaw 1958) will show his extensive work Fragment in Museum Arnhem from the 6th of September 2014 till the 25th of January 2015. Fragment, exhibited in the southern wing of the museum, consists of a series of video and sound installations most of them based on footage made by the artist during his visits to the former Nazi extermination camps in Poland.
Why do you confront yourself and the visitor with the unfathomable sad and seemingly meaningless mass prosecution of civilians during the Second World War? Is it for the same reasons your friend, the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman now living in Leeds, writes about seemingly unsolvable issues such as the relation between the holocaust and modernity and the persistence of criminality, insecurity, exclusion and fear in today’s affluent societies?
For me wars are not only about battles. They make civilians suffer. It was like that a hundred years ago and it is now. Nothing has changed. Zygmunt Bauman in his books argues for the importance of the margins and marginalized people in so called healthy societies. He talks about pain as I do. There is no other way to face the facts and resolve problems than to make them a point of discussion.
The title of your solo exhibition in Arnhem is Fragment. Fragments normally belong or refer to a whole. But is there, to your idea, such a thing as a whole or a whole story?
I’m sceptical about the concept of a whole and the idea that history or life could have a general content or meaning. Life and history are fragmented. They are lived and witnessed by individuals. If you take a bus after this interview and the bus is involved in a serious traffic accident, there is obviously only one and the same bus and one accident. Yet the injuries of the individual bus passengers will be different. The passengers will tell different stories about what happened and their wounds will in the end leave different scars. My work Fragment deals with history and history to my mind is a discussion about the scars after the wounds stopped bleeding. The idea of the fragment to me has also another meaning, another importance. For me it is related to a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen called The Snow Queen. Andersen tale is about a magical mirror. The mirror distorts. It only shows the ugly and repulsive side of people and things it mirrors. By misfortune the mirror is scattered on earth in countless pieces. One of the characters in Andersen’s tale, Kai a boy, is hit by one of the shards. The fragment distorts his perception. He is angry with other people and full of a sudden admiration for the Snow Queen, the personification of cold reason and inhuman perfection. To me all this, the fragmented character of life, the marks it leaves and the meaning hidden in Andersen’s tale, are interwoven.
Your work relates to evil, loss, death and decay. You yourself have stressed the poetical side of your work. But what does poetry mean to you?
For me, reading poetry is very important. The poetry I like has to do with everyday life. In my view, one of poetry’s highest forms is the Japanese haiku. The haiku is short and down to earth, no more than a few simple gestures, yet full of hidden meaning. Poetry is kindred to the fragment. Both are sources of human richness. A good poem is like a good trailer of a film. The film hasn’t been made yet, but we can see it by means of our imagination, each of us imagining a different version. What a good poem says, all that it refers to, can be pieced together in seemingly countless ways. Prose is more objective and collective. .It has a general sense we have to acknowledge and respect. Poetry, on the contrary, is open. Because of its endless possibilities for interpretation it’s truly private. What it means is yours and yours alone.
But is poetry embellishment, does it abate the sour side of life?
Not to me. Poetry is pain. It’s about the dark side of life. Prose deals with reason, poetry is about feeling and pain is an important feeling.
It seems obvious that there is poetry in a work such as HEAL, a sculpture you made for the University of California in Mission Bay San Francisco. Poetry was obvious in How It Is, the work you made in Tate Modern, for after going into the dark there was a return to the light. But where is poetry in your opinion in the work you made for Sonsbeek ’93 or a work such as Fragment?
Like most of my work, HEAL in San Francisco, was not based on some abstract concept. I started by investigating the Mission Bay area and its surroundings. HEAL was inspired partly by the so-called Hollywood Sign, the letters spelling the name Hollywood in Los Angeles. But a more important fact to me was the site HEAL was planned for. My work was ordered by the medical department based in a strikingly high tech and scientific environment. What is medical care in an environment like this? Is it purely a technical affair, like fixing a machine, or has it something to do with healing in a broader sense? The original meaning of ‘healing’ is not only related to the body, but to the soul as well. Healing has shamanistic roots and in shamanism body and soul are not separated. Important to me is that the work casts a shadow. Rain or clouds are rare in California. The sunlight is everywhere and my wish was to offer some kind of relief by way of the shadows the letters of the word ‘heal’ cast down. Relief is also offered by the water fountain installed in one of the legs of the work. Providing water under these circumstances is a practical service to the public. But water from a fountain in most cultures is also related to healing. In old tales young men leave the family house to search for water from magical wells to save their loved-ones from illness and death. These ideas and interrelated themes made up the poetry of my work in San Francisco. I brought things together that are important to me. In my view the important things have long roots. You can see the work I made as a tree. What fed the work, the ideas that made it come into being and are related to it, are the roots. These roots are not always directly visible. I don’t think it’s a problem if they are ignored or not noticed by the public. You can stay and enjoy yourself on the branches, so to speak. But for me as an artist it’s important to mind about the roots. If I wouldn’t, the trees I build in my work would fall over.
How It Is, my work in Tate Modern in 2009, was rooted in other issues. The experience of utter darkness and a return to light, as you said, played a role. For Sonsbeek ’93 I made two works on three locations. The first one was located near the bridge. It was a concrete object shaped as an opened parachute upside down. It was sunk into the ground, forming a big hole. This of course referred to the historical events on the site that was the scene of the airborne operation Market Garden in and around Arnhem in September 1944. Young men during these events were parachuted and landed in hell and death. The fact that my sculpture was something of a big hole in the ground near the bridge was important. Standing on the bridge, looking down into the hole, made you shiver. The hole was not only visible; you could ‘feel’ it. Important to me as well, something poetical, was the difference between perception and understanding. Down on the ground, standing close to the sculpture, you could see the concrete brim, but you could not see what the object was shaped like. Being close to it, didn’t mean you simple saw what it was. In order to see and understand, you had to distance yourself; go up the bridge and look down. After the exhibition the sculpture became something of a problem. People threw in garbage from the bridge. The city council suggested covering the hole with perspex, but to me the fact that the whole was open and thus ‘palpable’ was essential. So the work was removed and destroyed.
The other work existed of two parts. Sonsbeek originally was an exhibition in the park of Sonsbeek, but from the seventies of the last century it started to spread to other locations, something that was motivated by new ideas about art and the relation between art, nature and the city. In preparing for the work I was asked to make, my attention was drawn by Moscowa, the largest and oldest cemetery of the town. What fascinates me is the fact that even after life some people are punished by exclusion for what they did or simply for what they were. Traditionally people who committed suicide and other outsiders were excluded from common burial sites. Referring to these perennial phenomena of punishment and exclusion, I made a simple, open double tomb with two concrete seats to sit and contemplate. This double tomb was located just outside the fence of the cemetery. The earth excavated to make room for the tombs I transported to a place in town were the earth was stored in a metal case and covered with an electric warming blanket to bring it to human body temperature. This warming up for me was a way to take care of the earth that stood for the excluded.
What if someone would ask you pick an adequate guideline for life? The choice would be between a quote from the poem Helian written just before the Great War of 1914-1918 by the Austrian poet Georg Trakl or a quote from a poem entitled Incantation written in 1968 by the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz. The quote from Trakl reads: ‘Schön ist der Mensch und erscheinend im Dunkel’ (Beautiful is man and appearing in darkness). The quote from Milosz in translation reads: ‘Human reason is beautiful and invincible. / No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books, /No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.’ What would you pick: the somewhat gloomy line of Trakl or the words of Milosz, undoubtedly more optimistic in outlook?
1968, the date of Milosz’s poem, is of interest. You could call it a year of rebellion and cultural change in the West of Europe. In the east it was a year of repression. Inspired by the Russians and in reaction to the Israeli victory over the Arabs in the Six-Day War, the Polish communist government incited Polish citizens of Jewish origin to leave the country. It was a state organised anti-Semitic campaign. Milosz praise of human reason set against this background strikes me. But to be honest, I feel I have little in common with Czeslaw Milosz as a poet. His work to my taste is somewhat high blown. Only later in life and in his poetry he landed on earth. I prefer another Polish poet, Tadeusz Różewicz, but Różewicz is not on the list. So my choice would be Trakl. Trakl makes sense to me. Darkness as a surrounding is necessary to see the individual as a light. In general I have more in common with people like Trakl and, as you may know, the poet Paul Celan.
In what way is your work inspired by Celan?
He is one of my inspirations, but not in a literal sense. What inspires me and encourages me in the work of Paul Celan is a familiar sensibility. His work exhales a kindred way of taking notice of the world and life. It reflects openness, a commitment to experience, not only by way of the intellect or vision, but by way of the body, its movement, all its senses and its nervous system. What I show in Arnhem is not only about ideas and visible things. It reflects my bodily presence and my movements on the places I filmed. In arranging the different works, on the floor, the walls and ceiling, I tried to recreate this bodily aspect as well. I hope the way my work is arranged will induce visitors not only to look, but to pay attention to their own movements and their own body when going through the consecutive rooms of the exhibition. Fragment was shown before in Warsaw, Moscow and Berlin. No museum is the same. Arnhem has something special. The last room of the exhibition offers a beautiful view on the slope of the hill the museum is build on and on the Rhine flowing west. In front of you is the tree, where in 1993 on a platform my good friend Pepe Espaliú, performed his work El Nido, The Nest. Sad enough, he died shortly afterwards. The tree and the memories of Pepe and the view with the river make this exhibition of Fragment special to me. After going through all these dark rooms you can go behind the last projection wall with images of the Birkenau pond and have a look at the view outside. The visitor must notice that in the end there is light. Miroslaw Balka is not only about darkness.
Catalogue: Bauman Zygmunt, Marek Goździewski, Julian Heynen, Piotr Krajewski, and Frances Morris, Miroslaw Balka. Fragment. Warsaw, Centre for Contemporary Art, 2011.