Miroslaw Balka “CROSSOVER/S” at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan
by Agnieszka Gratza
“The end is in the beginning and yet you go on,” says Samuel Beckett. Placed at the outset and the close of Miroslaw Balka’s retrospective at HangarBicocca, spanning the last three decades of the Polish artist’s career, two yellow lines—one horizontal, one vertical—frame the exhibition and, taken together, beautifully illustrate the titular “crossovers.” Both are fragile and unstable objects. To see the first, a video piece featuring a rectangular yellow bar shifting ever so slightly against a black background, visitors must look back or retrace their steps, suspended as it is high up, out of harm’s way, above the main exhibition room’s curtained threshold. (This casts the work’s title, Holding the Horizon , in an ironic light.) Equally elusive, the tenuous and barely visible thread of Yellow Nerve (2012-2015), spotlit at night and catching the sun’s rays at certain hours of the day, occupies the full height of the contiguous Cube room. It has the empty industrial space all to itself, barring the audience members, whose breath and movements occasionally cause it to stir.
As they make (or, rather, feel) their way through an exhibition designed to stimulate all the senses, visitors individually and collectively give it body. Except in one instance—a blurry portrait of a concentration camp guard interviewed by Claude Lanzmann for his 1985 documentary film Shoah in Balka’s three-second-long looped video work Primitive (2008)—the body as such is conspicuous by its absence. And yet its diffuse presence haunts the show, starting with the heavy velvet curtain visitors must negotiate on entering the exhibition space, which has been heated to reach the average temperature of the human body. Titles of other works, such as 15 x 22 x 19 (hard skull) (2006) and Yellow Nerve (2012-2015), read like anatomical studies or else memento mori. According to his usual practice, the artist’s own body—and notably its height—has been used as a measure for the scaled-down version of the original zoo built for the SS officers and their families at the Treblinka extermination camp, the bare bones of which are faithfully reproduced in 250 x 700 x 455, ø 41 x 41 / Zoo / T (2007/2008).
If man is the measure of all things, then some of the artworks on view are bound to confound our expectations. Take, for instance, the colossal Wege zur Behandlung von Schmerzen (2011), designed as if to dwarf the visitor. Styling itself as an “anti-fountain,” the bulky metallic structure continually discharges a murky black liquid in lieu of the accustomed clear water; unlike your typical fountain, which tends to stand in the middle of a public square, it has been relegated to a corner. The center of the main exhibition space, fittingly called Navate (the naves), is occupied instead by another sizable installation made of steel and titled Cruzamento (2007), in keeping with the Christian symbolism that pervades the show. Made up of intersecting cage-like corridors, fitted with five strategically positioned ventilators that make your hair stand on end as you walk through, this is one of several such passageways and conduits made to channel visitors’ bodies or draw them inside, like a trap. Whereas 200 x 760 x 500 / The Right Path (2008/2015), whose L-shaped layout mirrors that of the Navate as a whole, leads to a dead end, the lightbulb dangling from the ceiling of a wooden cubicle in 196 x 230 x 141 (2007) switches off, disconcertingly, the minute one crosses its bounds.
A number of the installation pieces brought together under one roof at HangarBicocca rely on visitors to activate them by walking through, into, or on top of them; others seem to act of their own accord. This applies to works of the noise-generating variety especially, above all the outsize heavy wooden platform of 400 x 250 x 30 (2005), calling for a delicate balancing act on the visitor’s part akin to finding a sweet spot, and the wily To Be (2014), a motorized steel wire whose writhing motions produce a loud lashing sound, occasionally accompanied by the hollow thud of the falling platform displayed nearby.
Overlaps such as these are reflected in the show’s capacious title. CROSSOVER/S invites its audience to tease out the connecting threads among the unsettling objects gathered in this rich, densely allusive exhibition, in which differences of scale, verticality and horizontality, light and darkness, purity and dirt, heat and cold are subtly contrasted and played off against one another. Ultimately, the artworks assembled at HangarBicocca all seem to point in one direction: mortality as the true leveler and our common horizon, one we struggle to grasp.