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First Italian retrospective of Polish artist Miroslaw Balka

by Sara Deganello

Once you pull aside the heavy curtains introducing into the Naves, the monumental space in Milan's HangarBicocca where Breda Elettromeccanica used to assemble highly powerful electrical machines, you find yourself in the dark forest Polish artist Miroslaw Balka has prepared for visitors to his exhibition CROSSOVER/S, curated by Vicente Todolí and running from March 16 to July 30 in the Milanese contemporary art venue. The curtains are warm, human body temperature, and darkness pervades the exhibition space, a review of 18 of Balka's works from the 1990s onwards. The journey is a physical one: “It's not merely a visual experience. Bodily presence, sounds, smells, the sense of touch are all important aspects for me,” Balka confides as we chat and walk from work to work, talking of mankind, politics, and his students at the Studio of Spatial Activities in the Media Department of Warsaw's Academy of Fine Arts.
We walk up to 196 x 230 x 141 (many of his works take their name from their relative proportions), dated 2007, “it's a game of ‘now I see it, now I don't,'” he explains: “In the dark, we can see a light inside a wooden structure, only when we get closer, a sensor detects our presence and causes the light to go off. As we walk away, it's switched back on. My work is meant to get people to think, aesthetics is not what drives me, I don't create something so it can be admired; I do it as a stimulant to the brain: why doesn't this light shine for me? The reply is ultimately up to each of us.”
We can hear splashing water somewhere above us. Balka tells me: “This is the sound of the black water in Wege zur Behandlung von Schmerzen [“Ways to Manage Pain”]. Pain is usually black. It's a criticism of the way we tackle pain today: with pills that quickly get rid of it, without considering its cause. Pain, instead, can take many forms, it can be historic or personal. The work concerns how one can understand pain in order to remove it.” The title is in German because the installation, a gush of water splashing down into a huge vat, was first shown in Germany. The name of the current exhibition, CROSSOVER/S, “is in English: it highlights the relationship between singular and plural. We come here as single individuals but can establish relationships with others and with the work, creating energy.”
Reflecting on the relationship between what's individual and collective, private and public is one of the constants in Balka's oeuvre, as testified by 7 x 7 x 1010, a very tall column made up of used soap bars collected from Warsaw residents in 2000, and Common Ground, 178 doormats from Cracow homes: two collections of intimate, personal objects and events forcibly put together. “Like those belonging to migrants, who come here with their stories – stories we know nothing of and group together in common areas: there's a political nuance as well.”
(CROSSOVER/S, Pirelli HangarBicocca space in Milan, until July 30)