'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Miroslaw Balka link on the Tate website is a very irritating piece of over-engineering.

Tate consistently brings us superb, if sometimes overly monumental, exhibitions. Recently though I’ve noticed an increasing Tate tendency (Tate-ency?) towards what, for want of a better word, I’ll borrow from Baudrillard and call the Disney-isation of exhibitions, in a way that could, perhaps contentiously, be seen as the slippery slope of insidious artistic sabotage.

Miroslaw Balka’s Unilever commission is a hulking yet unexpectedly beautiful steel shipping container, raised on Corbusier-esque stilts, sitting like a misplaced and unfathomably vast UFO at the far end of the Turbine Hall.

You can walk around it. If you’re brave enough, you can walk under it. And at the back, the ramp is gently lowered, enticing you to walk into, its dark cavernous depths. Inside is the void. Part warm and inviting womblike peace regained, part unknown and destabilising day trip to hell - a sense perhaps of the double-edge of eternity.

Conceived as the equal and opposite of Eliasson’s gigantic sun, as dark as The Weather Project was light, Balka’s How It Is will probably call to mind for many of us disturbing narratives of persecuted peoples. Balka grew up in a town in Poland in which 75 per cent of the population had been exterminated in the death camps and inevitably that informs his creativity. But How It Is also speaks symbolically and poetically of that which lies beyond the beyond.

Walking up the ramp to enter this installation is a collective, visceral experience. It brings the participant experientially into touch with our own boundaries and fears, whilst simultaneously we are reassured by a strong sense of the same in others, as we all edge tentatively and disjointedly through the deep, absorbent, warm darkness towards who knows what.

At one point I thought I’d bumped into a particularly inanimate being, but eventually realised I’d reached the end and what I was touching was the surprisingly soft, velvety reassurance of the inside wall. The person next to me I couldn’t see, or even make out a shadow of, but I heard his disembodied voice gently enquire: ‘is that it?’ Whether he was referring to the end wall, the significance of Balka’s work, or the meaning of life hardly matters. ‘I’m afraid so,’ responded another eerie voice.

Miroslaw Balka’s Unilever commission is a significant piece of theatrics, and I don’t say that with even a hint of denigration. I found it to be an awesome and inspiring creation. Consequently, in trying to research it retrospectively, and starting with Tate’s website, I find myself wondering: does it really need Ghost Train inspired technological spinnery, clicking and bleeping and silly spooky noises to big it up?

Which gets me to wondering once again whether Richard Long’s exhibition at Tate Britain needed floor to ceiling sized multi-coloured bits of text riding rough shod over the enigmatic subtlety of the work in order to keep us in the moment? Or could that have been curatorial ego inserting itself where it didn’t need to be?

And what about the ludicrous Andy Warhol portrait wallpaper, or whatever it’s supposed to be, in room 3 of the Pop Life show? Given the theme of that exhibition is the commodification and popularisation of art you might think it’s more in keeping there, but the fact that it’s just one example amongst many suggests that’s not the reason it’s there.

Presumably these curatorial add-ons are provided for us because someone somewhere imagines Joe Public to have the attention span of a gnat, and without a constant barrage of over stimulation to the senses, he’ll probably just wander off to the pub or something. Although, let’s face it, with the number of eateries and drinking holes at Planet Tate, even if he does choose bodily refreshment over visual and intellectual stimulation, it’s still cash in the bank for Tate.

Business is business; I appreciate that, and certainly a hell of a lot of people visit Tate and get much pleasure from it. A reported twenty million people have visited the Turbine hall since it opened nearly ten years ago, so they’re certainly getting a lot of things spot on right and I applaud them for that.

But could not the very question that Pop Life raises also be asked of Tate itself? Firstly, is Tate selling out? And secondly, are we, the general public, really such a bunch of half-witted troglodytes, needing everything to be in primary colours and twenty feet high, or bearing more than a passing resemblance to a win or lose computer game, in order for us to take a sustained interest in it? Personally I think not.

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