Miroslaw Balka: The shadow of life’s mechanisms (2004)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This interview was previously published in Sculpture magazine, 23(9), November 2004, pp. 36-41; and also in G. Harper & T. Moyer’s Conversations on Sculpture (2007), (International Sculpture Center Press: Hamilton, NJ, USA; distributed by University of Washington Press), pp. 218-23.

Worn medicine balls— used in Poland for physical therapy exercises—slowly turn counter-clockwise threaded on a steel rope, evoking the passage of time and the unflattering effects of aging. Center stage, there is a slowly rotating wall that will hit you— without warning— if you don’t watch out. And concluding the experience, a room with gray, sooty, ash-covered walls makes viewers enact a similar rotation, reminding us of our common future state. These are some of the works that Miroslaw Balka unveiled at a recent exhibition at London’s White Cube gallery.

Titled “Karma,” Miroslaw Balka’s show featured sculptural installations expressing timelessness, repetitive cycles, continuity, and progress/lack of progress. At first, the works may appear rather abstract, yet they are very much grounded in a representation based on the artist’s body and life. He has described his work in terms of releasing the energy contained in simple materials. Over the years, Balka has moved from a realistic representation of the human body to a more Minimalist conception, using a wide variety of media.

Exhibiting internationally since 2001, Balka has had solo exhibitions at the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Japan; the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands; the Zacheta Gallery of Contemporary Art, Warsaw; the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (SMAK), Gent, Belgium; Dundee Contemporary Arts in Scotland; and the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin, Ireland, among others. His most recent show closed in October 2004 at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York. He has also contributed pieces to group exhibitions at various museums and galleries around the globe. Born in Warsaw in 1958, Balka graduated from the city’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1985. He works and lives in the Polish capital.

R.J. Preece: How would you describe the work in this show compared to your previous work?

Miroslaw Balka: These works investigate the same issues, but I’m discovering different layers. This doesn’t mean that I consider this to be “progress.” I consider it to be like an archaeologist’s work. I’m digging into my life, my history, the history of the places that surround me, the history of the people who surround me—and the works are visualizations of these relationships.

R.J. Preece: You deal with a level of abstraction in relation to your body, through measurements, for example. Could you tell me about that? Because when you dissect the elements and principles of your works, the connections won’t always be obvious to viewers.

Miroslaw Balka: That’s true, but I think that while the presence of the body— and the body of the work— looks very abstract, the shadow of my body can be very realistic. Because the dimensions, in most cases, correspond to those of my body. Because the materials very often come from my personal history. As a result, these abstract works lose their abstract presence. They can then be recognized as much more realistic.

R.J. Preece: This occurs with some of your titles.

Miroslaw Balka: Yes, for example, the titles that indicate the measurements of the works. Here, at one level, the works are very abstract. But when you look closer, you start to recognize some proportions of my body. I’m 190 centimeters tall, and each hair rope piece is this length, but it is hanging. So, on the “outside” what you see in the title is not clearly visible. But the dimension “inside” is important to me. Also, with 18 x 60 ø (2004), “60” refers to the width of my arms, and the height is a single jump (when I had a problem with my Achilles tendon). The dimension of the rotating wall for 270 x 449 x 12 (2004) relates to the existing wall in my office, 1:1. It’s like a wall go-go dancing with the pole. I mainly choose numbered titles instead of using words because I prefer a “cooler” approach. But when you look closer, the work is actually much “warmer.” I always say that these works are not abstract, or pure abstraction, because my intention when making them was never about the shape or the color. I’m always using a much more emotional beginning, my background, when making art.

R.J. Preece: This also occurs with some materials that you use. For example, the brown linoleum is from your studio.

Miroslaw Balka: Yes. And my studio is the house that I grew up in. In my work, I draw from “real life” or from “real relationships”— not with the sun or the universe but with the lamp or kitchen, for example. Also, in this show, the top part of the steel for the hair rope piece comes from the water pipes in my studio.

R.J. Preece: And what about 354 x 58 x 79 (2004), the work with worn, leather medicine balls rotating on a steel rope?

Miroslaw Balka: What’s important in this work is the use of medicine balls. When you roll them, they lose their round shape. They become imperfect. Also, they are heavy, and they are used for healing your body. This function was an important beginning for using these balls. Then I tried to make a kind of column, perhaps a detail of an endless column, rotating to the left— against “time,” moving counter-clockwise, coming back in time— and referring to other rotating elements moving counter-clockwise in the show, coming back to the essence.

R.J. Preece: Since your work, in general, is very personal in some way, how does this work relate to you with regard to “going against time” and "imperfection"?

Miroslaw Balka: My body is becoming a shape that I would not like to have, for example. I look in the mirror. I’m now 46. The medicine balls are related to my body in terms of the activity of my body— the imperfection. Everything in my work is about my body, but few aspects of the work relate to my body in that way. Instead, I aim to create the presence of my body. I’m more skeptical of the world now than I was 20 years ago. I see my position within it better. I see the mechanisms of life better. I think my work is a shadow of this observation. It is not a direct reflection.

R.J. Preece: “Coming back to the essence.” Does this describe you now?

Miroslaw Balka: No. That sounds too bombastic. “Coming back to the essence of life”: it’s like movement without progress. Instead of making a straight line and seeing the future with capital letters, it’s just thinking of today with small letters. With small steps. Not running. Turning around. It’s like everyday life.

R.J. Preece: Upstairs in a separate room apart from the main exhibition and installation, you are exhibiting Dead end (2002–04).

Miroslaw Balka: The height of the ash surface is the dimension of the reach of my hand when standing, about two meters.

R.J. Preece: Why ash?

Miroslaw Balka: It’s the final presence of our bodies in life. Downstairs, the works are rotating by themselves. And upstairs, the viewer’s body is rotating in this space. What you experience watching the work rotate, you actually perform in the room with ash-covered walls. And you feel it, at a different level.

R.J. Preece: Why did you title the show “Karma”?

Miroslaw Balka: Of course it’s a word originating from the East, but it is very international now, with reference to a strong presence and philosophy. These works are rotating, have some traces, but they are from life and are the future. They are about working for something better.

R.J. Preece: What kinds of exhibition situations are best for you?

Miroslaw Balka: The best is when the gallery is small, because the dimensions are closer to the conditions I work with— the works are related to the interior. I work with the dimensions of 4 x 4 x 3 meters, so I see the works— if made in my studio— in this space.

R.J. Preece: Was the SMAK show in Gent (2001) more difficult? The spaces were larger and distributed in different parts of the building on two floors.

Miroslaw Balka: No. This wasn’t a problem. For example, in the large room on the second floor, I decided to install 1750 x 760 x 250 (2001), a construction of the actual shape of the exterior wall of my studio, covered in ash.

R.J. Preece: You describe your education at the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw as not Bauhaus-oriented. Yet your work shows an acute awareness of foundation year principles that focus on formal elements and the way they interact.

Miroslaw Balka: Actually, I came to this “level” through my personal experience. When I was studying, I was making different things— but never anything based on a construction— more from, say, a symbolic discussion of beauty based on interpretation of, say, a sculpture.

R.J. Preece: What are the current issues that you are facing in your art production?

Miroslaw Balka: I don’t make plans. I just confront the space, the situation, and I try to formulate the best way to present my work and the installation in the space.

R.J. Preece: What are the current issues that you are facing in your professional practice?

Miroslaw Balka: I never wanted to become professional. I prefer to not be so perfect in my activity. I think professionalism is killing the freshness of the artist in some way. I never wanted to have an assistant who would answer all of my letters, for example. Some of my friends who are artists have workshops and they just give their drawings to assistants every week, and then they check on the progress of the works.

I’m very much concerned about the entire development of my art. I want to make these objects myself, and I want to focus on artistic production. I am also concerned with the people surrounding the exhibition. Becoming a successful artist is very much about meeting people. At every exhibition, I meet a lot of different people in addition to the curator. So, the exhibition is very much about personal exchange. Every curator you work with is a different human being, so the exchange is important.

R.J. Preece: What decisions did you make when installing this show at White Cube?

Miroslaw Balka: Before the show, I had my leg plastered for about two months because I tore my Achilles tendon. I had surgery. I started to lose contact with what I was doing in my studio. I usually work with a certain rhythm, and, during this time, I could only read in bed. The cast finally came off, and I had only one month to really work. As so often happens with me, because I work very closely with the site, I changed quite a few things in this show at the last minute. I knew I had to work on things here at the gallery to get everything into the final shape that I wanted. I finished one hour before the opening.

R.J. Preece: The London art scene is very mass media-oriented. And White Cube leads this with some of its artists. How do you see yourself within this culture?

Miroslaw Balka: I’m here for five days, so I concentrate on the show. The show is most important and the other things are not so visible to me. Of course, I know that the position of White Cube is very strong. And it’s good for my works. My part is to make a good show and present my best work at the moment. The rest is part of their work.

R.J. Preece: So you are not affected by it or really interested?

Miroslaw Balka: Yes.

R.J. Preece: So you don’t want the TV cameras. For example, BBC London news has been running a lot of features concerning White Cube artists lately— Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk, and Antony Gormley.

Miroslaw Balka: My art is not so geared toward that. My works always look much better in person.