Blackpaint 20

Balka (again)

Laura Cumming, in today’s Observer, reviews an exhibition by Miroslav Balka in Oxford.  Balka is the artist who has the big installation in the Tate Modern now, the container lined with black felt that I wrote about “I am Blackpaint”, my first blog.  Although Balka didn’t say so (avoided it, in fact, because he didn’t want to direct audience reaction), I immediately associated it with the concentration camps, seeing it as a giant cattle truck, the people entering, going “into the darkness”… the associations are obvious, although I don’t think it detracts from the effect – IF you see it under the proper conditions.  The proper conditions include an absence of chattering, shouting youngsters, brandishing their mobiles aloft to shed light around.

Anyway, Cumming describes in her review some of the exhibits at Oxford as “wintry, tense … maaking a point of uncertainty….In these film installations, Balka returns over and over again to a history one assumes must be Polish, because the artist is Polish, yet which tug the mind in all sorts of directions.”

There is a still from “Pond”, showing a ring of trees with a frozen pond within it and a black blob resembling a kneeling figure in the distance.  Cumming identifies it as “Birkenau, which is both a forest and a death camp.”  presumably, this is information supplied by Balka, in notes, perhaps, or a voiceover (unlikely).  This identification seems to me to conflict with the objective of “making a point of uncertainty”; without being told it was Birkenau, it could be a park anywhere; Clapham Common, New England, Sweden… As soon as you know the artist is a Pole, and more, that he lives near Treblinka (Ithought it was Cracow, near Auschwitz – maybe that was where he grew up) – the association is inevitable.  The trees across the pond loom in, the blob is a kneeling figure from those horrible photographs of mass murder by the Einsatzgruppen.

Anyway, the review is great and the exhibition sounds great too – but I want to consider the point above.  Is it possible for a Polish artist to avoid – assuming he/she wished to avoid – associations and inferences from World War 2 and the Holocaust?  Only, I think, if they were to avoid greys, blacks, browns, whiteouts, mist, forests, black and white film, huts, trains… you can continue the list.  If they were to specify “this work is not about the war” that would, of course, be taken as irony.  Some histories are so powerful that they can’t be escaped from, I think; even if the artists were able to free themselves , the reviewers and audiences would still contextualise.

And why not?  Once the work is on the wall or screen, it doesn’t belong wholly to the artist any more – that goes of course for poetry, music, all forms of art.  I remember seeing a Sean Scully in the Tate, mostly greys, whites and browns, that immediately suggested cattle trucks and concentration camps to me.

So, I don’t think that Polish artists can escape at least the question; how does this relate to the war?  They are constrained by their history, not necessarily to create, but  to be interpreted in this way.  Not for them the sort of trivia I deal in; colours, shapes, materials used for their own sakes and properties; they must be significant.  

Listened to: It’s Cold in China Blues, by Isaiah Nettles, the Mississippi Moaner.

“So cold in China, the birds can’t hardly sing;

And it made me mad, ‘cos you broke my diamond ring.”

Perfectly logical.



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