Lightworks by Julian Heynen

A wooden plank, some felt, a concrete tunnel, a piece of soap, and old football, a handful of salt or a few minutes of video film, maybe less. It’s not hard to find the materials Miroslaw Balka needs, and there are pictures everywhere; you just have to see them and know how to use them. Although of course they are not just any old pictures that you could pluck by the wayside. Regardless of whether they suddenly make their presence felt, or whether they slip more casually into your consciousness, you can spot them because they are familiar, without even having previously been seen. But you can’t actually go in search of these pictures; the most you can do is go to the places they may frequent. But should you stumble across them, they are instantly clear and make sense. All you need to do is take out the mini camcorder from your pocket and film for a while. For instance, when an express train is hurtling through a wooded region, the whistling wind beating at and rattling the open windows, and suddenly you see an insect in a jerky pool of sunlight on the floor; it’ fallen on its back and is beating its wings unimaginably fast in an effort to right itself and fly away. One minute of film in these circumstances is a small eternity, and even if it shows nothing more than a demented, reeling creature, we know: it’ll never escape. Only the film can start over again without us even noticing at first.

Discovered on a railway journey and filmed without further ado in a single take, this barely filtered slice of life is an instant document of a situation condensed into one image. We see the struggling insect, we hear the train in motion and we feel its swaying movement. The skill is not in the film-maker’s craft – the light is unreliable, the camera is far from top of the range, and the picture is unsteady. What we see here cannot be separated from how it is seen and who sees it. Subjectivity, if that’s the right word, is the method here. Documentation is about bearing witness, engaging, becoming entangled.

These and other films begin at some point and then continue as loops. Small scraps of action that we think we recognise, and incipient dramatic incidents are dissolved again and transmuted into something that could be described as a ‘state of events’. A situation, having arisen from observation, becomes a state – a statement even? We’ll see.

The films loom into sight in the space. They emerge from the proportionless rectangle of the film image that exists somewhere between big-screen cinema and the mini-monitor. The fleeting existence of these light-made pictures drops anchor in physical reality. Balka’s films share the space with our bodies. They cling to doors, they curl up in corners, they lie on the floor, and even when they appear – in the customary manner – on the wall before us, they are still trying to make contact with something real, a piece of material, something you can get hold of. However light, however visual, however fictional the films, they are as close as they can get to sculpture, like cousins.


The videos are all presented as loops; generally the viewer is not aware of this. They run steadily onwards, with their own rhythms, almost like rituals where it is not simply the contents but also the duration and the intrinsic timing that count. In this context the loop is less a pragmatic convention of the exhibition business than a means to draw the viewer into a singular zone somewhere between seeing and thinking. The viewer is shown simple video recordings of fleeting events and situations. In that sense, the prevailing tone is one of documentary sobriety. Narrative elements are kept at bay or, at most, only impinge on the margins. F anything, the scenes and situations that appear in the videos are permeated by a certain level of intimacy. The gaze – both carefully maintained and diffuse – and the physical closeness to the subject matter create a sense of familiarity, albeit fragile. As thought events are self-explanatory if only one gets close enough to them and can withstand their presence long enough. This unspoken hope is inscribed into these images, even although each one also demonstrates the impossibility of thus simply arriving at the desired level of cognition. The terrain between the facts, between looking and knowing, is the realm where this art of the visible operates. And this terrain has to be crossed and recrossed in the hope of finding fissures that would reveal a fraction more of the underlying circumstances.

As he engages in this search, Balka comes upon both the surprising and the banal, the poetic and the insufferable. And it is precisely those things that appear simply too huge, too complex, too terrible to be explained by ordinary words and images that he is attracted by. These include the past and the traps set by our memories; they include crimes and death but also sheer beauty and small miracles. But you can never have one without the other, and especially these video works seem to be seeking a third level somewhere between things that are supposedly perfectly clear. If – in a glowing circle of flames – we find ourselves under observation by both a human eye and burning gas, if beauty can be so sharp and horror so seductive, there is no longer any escape open to us. In pre-exhibition discussions, Balka cited a line from a song: ‘As I search for a piece of kindness / And I find Hitler in my heart.’ To set your sights on such an unbearable dichotomy in a work of art, to make it likely for one moment in this place, is to take a considerable risk. Misunderstandings will not be slow in coming, nor the dangers either. But this is precisely the point that we should reach through works that are about everything but (can) only show very little. What saves these works from false or fruitless empathy or even from a fatally dark romanticism is their form – for they are presented in terms of a contemporary composure that is as casual as it is punctilious. It’s about waiting and then, when a situation has reached a critical density, continuing to observe it for an unspecified length of time. What distinguishes composed but alert restraint from ordinary coolness is the artist’s eye for the past: the past not as an available resource and not as something that exists only in earlier events but in everything ‘that I can touch’, Balka says. The past is physis as physis is the past – in other words the present.

The light in these videos is always close to darkness: ‘Knock the / light-wedges away’ (Paul Celan). The works operate from the intermediate realms of twilight and supposed incomprehensibility. Brightness is no guarantee for enlightenment; in certain circumstances it is to be avoided, if anything. ‘But we could not / darken over to you / lighduress / reigned’ (Paul Celan). Twilight is a form that corresponds to the distance between observation and its meaning. It sheds just enough light for the direction that leads to understanding to be distinguishable, but also for doubt to arise as to whether one will ever really achieve this goal. However closely the works cling to the tangible surface of things and themes, they render themselves proportionately distant and alien. In this half-way house there is no stopping, no rest, no certainty, only the irresistible urge to look again and perhaps to glimpse in another patch of light a different detail of those things that are still not understood.

Miroslaw Balka Lichtzwang K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf/Köln 2006