BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 11 NOV 02
Featured in
Issue 71

Miroslaw Balka

Dundee Contemporary Arts, Scotland

BY Martin Herbert in Reviews | 11 NOV 02

A life lost, a gravestone gained: the algebra of memorials doesn't balance at all, as Miroslaw Balka, the son of a tombstone engraver and grandson of a tombstone cutter, surely knows. None the less - and as the 35 works of sculpture, video, scented installation and drawing in his first major UK show amply proved - the Polish artist remains fascinated by what can almost replace a body and how that replacement might endure, might sing, in ways that a body can't. The substitution evidently requires a certain degree of stagecraft.

Subdividing the usually airy spaces of Dundee Contemporary Arts into a maze-like network of corridors and sepulchres, Balka gave over one of the smaller rooms to one of the most intense pieces, 2 Ý (190 Ý 60 Ý 11), 2 Ý (190 Ý 60 Ý 1), 2 Ý (40 Ý 30 Ý 11) (1992) - the title refers to the dimensions of the work's constituent parts, which refer in turn to those of Balka's body. In 1992 he moved his studio into his late grandparents' house in Otwock, a village outside Warsaw. This was one of the earliest occasions on which Balka scavenged parts of the house for reliquary sculpture - a process he has pursued ever since. Hung on one wall were two long rectangles of dull orange carpet from the house, flipped to reveal a felt underlay worn thin by decades of human movements. On the floor were twin slabs of terrazzo, 'poor man's marble', of the same tomb-like dimensions: from one end of each a section had been removed and replaced with a pillow of spotty grey ashes. Beside them are the excised tablets. This ludic set of funerary, transubstantiated equivalences depended on Balka's mobilizing of what Brian O'Doherty once called 'the sacramental nature of the space', but shamed anyone who would value, say, the painterly qualities of abraded underlay over the fading perfume of a life lived.

And what kind of life was it? Balka's works from his family home co-opt its status as a cipher for histories both personal - that of his Polish Catholic family - and, more ambitiously, universal - that of the Warsaw Ghetto and the generation of Poles that disappeared into the camps. As Daniel Birnbaum has pointed out, whether the personal can become universal is the nub of Balka's work, but at Dundee the question was made substantially a moot point by one particular pairing of works. Voicing the usually unspoken subtext of his oeuvre, 536 Ý 434 Ý 5 (2001) is a replica of the slatted, blond wood floor in the room adjacent to the gas chamber in the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, the gaps between the planks filled with salt - the essential reduction of sweat and tears. Projected downwards on to it was The Walk (2001), a video shot in the actual room that, in less than a minute, retraced from their own perspective the prisoners' last steps. Balka's nudging theatricality was almost perfectly integrated, the camera twisting so that the videoed slats swung dizzily against the remade real ones. The most politicized use of Op techniques I have ever seen, it was also the most moving by a country mile.

Some pieces struggled to achieve the same transparency. In 1993, after a fire in his studio had singed a number of drawings, Balka supposedly had the flame-licked fragments framed up, but the 20 exhibited here - their charcoal-black vignettes leading the eye into a cornucopia of hung men, spurting vaginas and unreadable hieroglyphics - felt too well composed to be true. God, or whoever acted upon them, is evidently an aesthetician. A different problem shadowed two site-specific works, the punningly titled 0.5 Ý 2085 Ý 250 (The Dead End) (2002), a cul-de-sac whose walls were smeared to a height of 250 cm with pungent ashes, and its dialectical companion Soap Room (2002), in which Balka performed the same trick with golden soap run through a cheese-grater. The hitch was their distracting stylistic proximity to the early work of Anya Gallaccio.

Contained in the room through which one left the exhibition, this last work could only figure cleansing, just as a gravestone can only semaphore a lost soul. Here the efforts made to dignify and console had counted for a lot, but this particular panacea was necessarily limited and spectacular. In his Invisible Republic (1997) Greil Marcus writes of the morbid and brilliant country-blues singer Dock Boggs, whose concerned friends would tell him to 'get out of the graveyard'. Like him, Balka is at his sweetest and strongest when he refuses to do so.

Martin Herbert is a critic based in Berlin, Germany.