Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London, UK

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Review By Rebecca Lewin

Miroslaw Balka‘s response to the Unilever commission at Tate Modern was to design a box made of grey steel. It is lined with black fabric that muffles sound and absorbs light, the artist’s intention being the creation of a totally dark space. It is also enormous, filling the entire second half of the turbine hall and rising from the floor to a height of thirteen metres. The box stands on two-metre-high stilts but can be entered via a ramp that rises from the far end of the Turbine Hall. Balka’s genius lies in the ability to create a complex layering of meanings and experiences with relatively simply structures, and How It Is is no exception.

Simply to describe the way this work looks would be like explaining the origin of the title (taken directly from the Samuel Beckett novel that follows the protagonist’s journey through a sea of mud) and leaving it at that. It has been likened to a shipping container, a gas chamber and the cattle trucks used to transport Jews in World War II. It could easily be all of these, but I rather wondered whether it acts as an exaggerated metaphor for the specially-built cases used to transport works of art. The object it could have contained would be an appropriate size for the Turbine Hall, if the Hall were the size of a normal gallery space. The spatial relationship of the box to its container is strengthened by the visual similarities between the two; Balka has echoed the exposed steel struts in the Tate’s perimeter walls. The illusion of having stumbled into a giant’s art gallery was worthy of countless Alice In Wonderland references.

The dark interior of the box is as manipulative as its exterior dimensions are overwhelming, and we must be willing participants in Balka’s game. Having reached the back of the box without bumping into anyone, I turned to watch the progress of other visitors. Like me, they paused briefly on the threshold, walked in and then faltered when their eyes began to fail them. Patterns of behaviour quickly emerged. The problem with our tacit agreement with Balka is that it renders us knowing (if the trick works) or annoyed (if it does not). If we manage, as we expect, to lose all visual perspective the ears take over, anxiously following footsteps and whispers. If, as on my second visit, the walls and other visitors are visible, the game ended as soon as I entered the dark.

Whether or not we are successfully blinded, it is arguably the dark comedy that is a recurrent theme in Balka’s work that must save How It Is from disappointing visitors with excellent sight. The impulse to explain a personal, bodily experience with universal analogies - to Plato, Tartarus, the second world war - is an exercise replete with Beckettian irony. In fact, the theatricality of the object and the experience works in its favour. The proportions of the Turbine Hall are closer to a theatre, or even a circus than a gallery and the Unilever series’ struggle with the element of carnival is embraced here unapologetically; the viewer must take to the stage (via the ramp) and perform his or her own, self-scripted play.

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