Text by John Hutchinson
Upstairs, in front of the window, is a bookcase, like an old kitchen cupboard, bearing the traces of heavy wear. It contains many small things, among them a rusted tin, full of feathers; a pile of used pieces of soap; three steel jaws; and a model of 'the Holy Lamb'. Thirty-nine objects. All of them have very real significance for Miroslaw Balka. The cupboard is the embodiment of personal memories, a legless torso topped by a modelled head of Witold Gombrowicz, a Polish writer much admired by MB.
Christopher Bollas, the psychoanalyst, has suggested that 'aesthetic moments' are those points in life when we feel held and embraced by the spirit of things that are being considered or contemplated. And although such moments can subsequently be explained and articulated, they are fundamentally wordless occasions, notable less for thoughts than for the density of the subject's feeling. These experiences, says Bollas, are existential memories, non-representational recollections conveyed through a sense of the uncanny. They are registered through an experience in being, rather than in mind, because they recall the time, before words existed, when a relationship with the other was the essence of life.
The 'aesthetic moment* is an evocative resurrection of an early ego condition, an instant when the subject is 'captured' by an object and enjoys the sensation of being engaged in a meaningful, and perhaps even reverential, experience. But the pursuit of such moments is an endless search for something in the future that actually resides in the past. In reality, we are looking for 'transformational objects' that promise to change us, to bring us into harmony with the non-self - at least within the limited confines of a cultural framework.
Near the far wall is a metal frame, Inspired by similar structures (still to be found in the gardens of many Polish homes) that are used for beating and cleaning carpets. Part of its lower bar is covered with chalk, which rubs off when you come close enough to hear the curious sounds that emerge from two tiny loudspeakers. You hear sounds of intimacy - an 'elemental form of communication', as MB puts it. Behind the construction, pinned to the wall, are two sheets of letters of the alphabet and numerals, carefully inscribed by MB almost thirty years ago. Innocence and experience; distance and closeness; dirt and purity.
The 'unheimlich', or uncanny, is that which should have remained secret and concealed but which has come to light. The uncanny reminds us that everything is far too close to home, says Adam Phillips, the writer and psychotherapist. Our deepest wish is that there is no place like home, precisely because our deepest fear is that there is no place unlike home. Home is where the trouble starts. Freud's domesticating of the uncanny - his making it, like everything else, a family affair - is an example of the phenomenon he describes. In other words, by normalising our experience, by living as though we are more or less familiar to ourselves, in our more or less familiar world, our lives become more disturbing (and disturbed), not less.
MB rejects a completed piece; instead, a few of its elements are reassembled and attached to a piece of board that has hitherto been used in the gallery as part of something useful. The plastic piping wrapped in a strip of old carpet looks like entrails; the hole in the board is reminiscent of a gaping mouth; wine, like blood or a sacrament, incessantly circulates, in and out of an old aluminium cooking pot.
Memory is anticipation, and anticipation is endless; a life is an idiosyncratic repertoire of repetitions. Memory, for Freud, is the recollection of desire; memory becomes the hope, in disguised form, of the possibility of satisfaction. According to Phillips, who has much experience in these matters, children only need internal worlds - processes of symbolic transformation - when they are troubled by something. The making of meaning is a sign of trauma. Perhaps one could say that only that which doesn't return is the essence of childhood, and when we understand this we may then not need to go on plundering our lives, and those of our children, for its retrieval. And so, says Phillips (with a characteristic touch of paradox and humour), psychoanalysis might sometime be able to teach us how to lose interest in our histories. Art, perhaps, may do something similar. It is the task of art to make the past bearably present so that we can see the future through it, he writes. Trauma is when the past is too present; when, unbeknown to oneself, the past obliterates the present.
The image comes to him on a train journey; a moth settles on the carriage floor. It seems white as a spirit, as fragile as a dream. It turns and turns again, in and out of focus. The dance never stops; we expect a death, but it never comes. The noise of the train, on the soundtrack, is irritating; it doesn't let you settle. At first the film is projected from the high ceiling onto the concrete floor, and then onto a bed of salt, weighing about three hundred kilos. The image is too beautiful, too translucent, so the pristine salt is ritually despoiled. MB lies in it and moves his arms, again and again, like a child in a night's fall of snow - or, perhaps, like the moth beating its tiny wings.
Seeing clearly, with no judgement, with affection, causes a certain transformation - or perhaps not exactly a transformation, but a unified and selfless focus on the translucence of life. A certain luminosity shines through even the darkest moments, and this makes us think that there is beauty in tragedy. Why is this luminosity more evident in sadness than in joy? It isn't, or at least it isn't necessarily so. Maybe the vulnerability of the self, the erosion of the ego, which is usually experienced when fully facing into sadness, is a factor. Often, in joyful moments, we attach ourselves to the object of joy, thus impeding translucence and luminosity. More often still, in communal experiences of 'joy', we merely expand, or project ourselves into a larger psychic arena.
Under the stairs, in a quiet space, there is a triptych of objects. A metal tomb, an open tomb, with terrazzo slabs balanced on its wings; there are small holes inside, all marked with touches of chalk. A ball of thin rubber that has had its top sliced off. It contains salt. This, too, is the result of a decision taken during the making of the exhibition. (Someone later says that it is like an eye filled with dried tears). Beside the big lower window is another small piece, which is the most casual and yet the most optimistic work in the show. It is a construction of sticks, one of them sealed with a bit of chewing gum, supported by two more slabs of terrazzo. A small length of wire curls and dips. MB found these sticks in his father's garden, where they had been used to support plants. MB looks at them affectionately and laughs. A bit like a Caspar David Friedrich, he says. And so, from a certain perspective, it is. A cross in a landscape, a promise of resurrection, a renewal.
This can also be true of sadness. The process of mourning, while always painful, sometimes seems beautiful. Mourning, like desire, is founded on the separation, the distance, between subject and object. It is at the heart of the experience. Mourning can seem meaningful because the limited self, or ego, identifies with loss and with its consequent tender and self-pitying emotions. But this is a trap. At worst this act of identification can lead to despair, at best to sentimentality; awareness of the process eventually reveals that we can become addicted to feeling and emotion. Its intensity serves to buttress and strengthen the ego.
But loss can be luminous. The understanding that the limited self has no final integrity or reality also reveals the presence that underlies all things. As that presence is explored and understood, it replaces misconceptions; it looks like emptiness but is, in reality, vital and full.
First published in ‘Miroslaw Balka: dig dug dug’, Exhibition catalogue, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, 2003