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Miroslaw Balka at the Irish Museum of Modern Art
Miroslaw Balka, BlueGasEyes, (detail), 2004, Steel, salt, DVD projection, loop, sound 27min., Dimensions variable, Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York.

DUBLIN, IRELAND.-An exhibition by the leading Polish artist Miroslaw Balka, internationally renowned for his powerful works dealing with memory and history, opens to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday 14 November 2007. Miroslaw Balka: Tristes Tropiques comprises 26 sculptures and installation works surveying the past 20 years. The exhibition includes eight large-scale installations and two new works being shown for the first time. It will be officially opened by the leading Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe at 6.00pm on Tuesday 13 November.

Described by IMMA Director Enrique Juncosa as “one of the most original contributions to sculpture in recent times”, Balka’s work draws on personal and collective memories. It relates especially to his Catholic upbringing and the fractured history of his native country, particularly the devastating impact of the Nazi occupation of Poland from 1939 to 1945, which led to the extermination of six million Polish citizens. These forces find expression in restrained, elegiac works, in their careful, minimalist placement and in the gaps and spaces between them. The exhibition takes its title from the book by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, published in 1955, which deals with his trip to the rainforests of Brazil in the 1930s and charts the native people’s experience of exile and displacement.

Despite their references to everyday human activities, Balka’s works are never purely representational. Materials, such as wood, iron, stone and linoleum, are sourced locally to his studio, once his childhood home, at Otwock near Warsaw , thereby imbuing them with strong personal associations. He also scales, and frequently titles, his structures to his own dimensions. 2 x (55 x 23 x 27), 190 x 190 x 0,3 (1995), for example, is made up of two boxes resembling old-fashioned suitcases, created from linoleum from Balka’s studio, set alongside a field of ashes, whose dimensions are dictated by the artist’s height and the width of his outstretched arms. The constituent parts unite Balka’s personal history with that of his fellow countrymen who ended their days in Nazi concentration camps and whose carefully labelled suitcases remain to this day one of the most poignant reminders of their fate.

Other frequently used materials, including soap, salt and hair, resonate with references to the body and its functions, and again with the collective memory of the Nazi regime. Hanging Soap Woman (2000), a rudimentary “necklace” of string and bars of soap, suggests bodily hygiene and even decoration, but also the commonly held belief that the Nazis manufactured soap from the remains of their victims. A new installation, Zoo/T (2007), being created especially for the courtyard at IMMA, reproduces a scaled-down version of a zoo built in 1943 in the ground of the Treblinka concentration camp. With a dovecote in the roof and a space for foxes and other wide animals below, it was commissioned by the camp commandant for the amusement of his children and his fellow SS officers.

In the accompanying catalogue, Enrique Juncosa describes Balka’s work as “intimate and self-reflective, exploring personal memory within the context of historical memory, while using deliberately limited means … [Balka] has managed to produce a series of works which take on the enormous historical trauma caused but the appearance of Nazi Germany, the bloodthirsty machinery of which exterminated one third of the population of Poland alone. Obviously, this is an extremely difficult theme due as much to the scale of the horror suffered as to the impossibility of comprehending it, but also because some scars of history do not heal easily”

Born in 1958, Miroslaw Balka studied at the Warsaw Academy from 1980 to 1985. He first came to international attention in the early 1990s. He has exhibited widely since then and represented Poland at the Venice Biennale in 1993. His solo exhibitions include those at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain ) London in 1995-96; Institut Valencia d’Art Modern (IVAM), Valencia , Spain , in 1997; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb in 2002; the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York in 2004, and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf in 2006.

The exhibition is curated by Enrique Juncosa, Director, IMMA. Miroslaw Balka: Tristes Tropiques continues on show until 27 January 2008.

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