In many ways the work of Polish sculptor Mirosław Bałka speaks to the formative history of 20th and 21st Century Poland. Taking inspiration and influence in equal measure from dramatic events in Polish history and Bałka’s attempts to situate himself within the context of his homeland’s past, the artist creates poignant, abstract works loaded with nostalgia and reverence, markers of people and places now lost and in some ways timely reminders of what may still be to come.
This depth is particularly obvious in Bałka’s two new exhibitions in London at White Cube Mason’s Yard and The Freud Museum, which present a dark body of loaded and confrontational works which speak to some of the artist’s most well established interests. The title of each show, DIE TRAUMDEUTUNG 25,31m AMSL and DIE TRAUMDEUTUNG 75,32m AMSL respectively¸ reference the original German title of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams published in 1899, followed by the geographic height in metres of each space above sea level. Within the shared title itself, Bałka has extracted the words ‘Die,’ ‘Trauma,’ ‘Deu’ (God) and ‘Tung,’ which means ‘bye’ in Albanian. As you move through each space, these words start to take on greater significance amongst the difficult passages of his work.
Previous London exhibitions at White Cube in 2008 (Nothere) and in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2009 (How It is) have addressed Bałka’s interest in trace, memory, remembrance and the suffering people experienced in his Native Poland during the 20th Century, particularly by the Jewish population. For these new shows, Bałka returns to these themes with his minimalist, abstract approach, employing simple materials once again to explore the impact on the body of confinement.
In the upstairs gallery at White Cube, the viewer is confronted by two stark, concrete works. The first, a square measuring 100 cm x 100 cm x 20cm suggests the entrance to a sort of trap door above a space beneath, but also an empty plinth or perhaps a gravestone. This duality as an entrance and opening as well as a marker of finality strikes at an aesthetics of nostalgia, with its changeable symbols which can be manipulated to form unstable narratives of loss. The second concrete structure is a trapezohedron, reminiscent of the one found in Albrecht Durer’s engraving Melancholia I (1514). With its missing side the object becomes a sort of shelter, with the opening facing away from the other sculpture as if to shield the viewer from it.
The accompanying texts go to great lengths to suggest not only the reference to Durer’s engraving, but also the magic helmet ‘Tarnhelm’ from Richard Wagner’s opera Das Rhinegold (1876). When the dwarf Albreich puts on the helmet, he becomes invisible, and utters the lines ‘Nacht und Nebel, niemand gleich/Siehst du mich, Bruder?’ (‘Night and fog, like to no one/can you see me Brother?’). This expression ‘Nacht und Nebel’ is also the title of Bałka’s video work showing at The Freud Museum, a reference to a covert Nazi ‘Aktion’ begun in 1941 which sought to intimidate enemies of the regime and as a result of which, many disappeared and were never seen or heard from again.
Downstairs at White Cube, the entire gallery space is redefined by a steel mesh canopy, entitled Above Your Head (2014) which reduces the height of the space to 2.1 metres. The room is shrouded in darkness, with only a spotlight above the centre casting ominous shadows of the fence across the floor of the space. The symbolism is heavy handed certainly, but the overall affect of the installation is dramatic. The duality of the upstairs room is continued downstairs by the addition of a subtle sound work emitting from a speaker just around the corner from the main space; the theme song to the 1963 film The Great Escape, as whistled by the male gallery staff. This suggestion of escape and freedom sits in stark contrast to the cage-like Above Your Head, creating a conflicted psychological landscape within the physical confines of the gallery.
In contrast to the more abstract works on show at White Cube, the exhibition at The Freud Museum appears ostensibly to be more literal. Taking as its basis Freud’s flight from Austria as the Nazi’s consolidated their power, the works directly address the Holocaust, and particularly its impact on Sigmund Freud and his family. In the main exhibition space sits the installation We Still Need (2014), a collection of plywood boxes of various shapes and sizes. The installation is based on a letter from a German Officer, Irmfried Eberl, to the Commissioner of the Jewish Quarter in the Warsaw Ghetto, requesting further materials for the Treblinka Concentration Camp. Two of Freud’s sisters perished at Treblinka (and a further two at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt). Significantly, thousands of Jews from Bałka’s hometown of Otwock also perished at Treblinka and Auschwitz. The boxes reflect the artist’s guess as to what would have been necessary to transport the requested materials. At the far end of the room sits a wooden trapezohedron, again positioned as a sort of shelter from the manifest horrors of the Holocaust, with its grimly bureaucratic character.
As you climb the stairs at The Freud Museum towards this installation, the sound of The Great Escape again permeates the air, once more suggesting the other side of confinement as well as referencing Freud’s own escape. This notion of freedom is furthered by the large sculptural work Y-Chromosomal Adam, an 8 metre high piece of black tubular fabric which is manipulated by an air blower and sits outside the front of the Museum. The tube suggests an escape tunnel, but its presentation as a black monolithic tower makes it hover like an ominous shadow above the viewer.
DIE TRAUMDEUTUNG 25,31m AMSL is showing at White Cube Mason’s Yard until 31 May, and DIE TRAUMDEUTUNG 75,32m AMSL will run concurrently until 24 May.
By Will Gresson