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Pirelli HangarBicocca exhibits work by Miroslaw Balka
Miroslaw Balka, 250 x 700 x 455, ø 41 x 41 / Zoo / T, 2007/2008. Installation view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2017. Exhibition copy courtesy of the artist, of a work in a Private collection, and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan Photo: © Attilio Maranzano.

MILAN.- Pirelli HangarBicocca presents “CROSSOVER/S,” the first retrospective in Italy by Miroslaw Balka, one of the leading artists of the last three decades, whose work explores human life, human nature, and individual and collective memory. Reflecting on the history of Europe and especially of Poland, his birthplace and home, Balka draws on autobiographical elements and episodes to create works that address universal themes in a powerfully evocative way.

The exhibition, curated by Vicente Todolí, brings together fifteen iconic sculptures, installations, and videos made from the 1990s to the present, along with a new project, Holding the Horizon (2016), a video conceived specifically for the show at Pirelli HangarBicocca.

The artistic career of Miroslaw Balka (b. 1958 in Warsaw) began in the mid-1980s, with figurative sculptures connected to his own life story and to the historical and political context of post-war Poland. In the early 1990s, Balka abandoned anthropomorphic forms to concentrate on depicting symbolic objects like beds, pedestals and fountains, in works that allude to the human presence without ever portraying it. Frequently based on ordinary materials like wood, salt, ashes, soap, cement and steel, they often employ the dimensions of the artist’s own body as a unit of measurement, as the titles make clear. This creates a proportional relationship directly linking the human figure to space, vision, experience, and memory.

“CROSSOVER/S,” conceived for the Navate space at Pirelli HangarBicocca, is meant to focus public attention on this later period in Balka’s artistic investigation and oeuvre, through an immersive exhibition full of physical, symbolic, and temporal intersections, where even light and darkness take on a key role and where viewers are made aware of their own presence and function within the space. In the artist’s words, “It is important to remind the visitor that they are not only eyes, but also the body that walked in the space” (Miroslaw Balka, in Dylan Kerr, “Sculptor Miroslaw Balka on the Romance of Conceptual Art,” Artspace, 2015).

The exhibition both starts and ends with a symbolic horizon that draws the viewer’s gaze into its depths. Over the door that serves as both the entrance and exit of the Navate, Balka has chosen to place a LED screen with the video Holding the Horizon (2016), which shows the unstable image of a yellow line. After moving through the space, visitors see the work once again on their way out. The show is thus conceived as a circular route that brings out new aspects and connotations in the works on view.

At the heart of the exhibition is Cruzamento (2007), a cross-shaped structure made out of wire cage, incorporating five fans. In this installation, Balka reflects on the concepts of transit and passage, creating a junction in the center of the Navate that becomes a threshold visitors must cross to continue on their way. The downward blast of air from the fans means they must make an additional effort to move through it. The same idea crops up elsewhere in “CROSSOVER/S,” with works like 200 x 760 x 550 The Right Path (2008/2015), a dark metal corridor visitors are invited to walk down, which seems to lead somewhere outside the exhibition space.

In the Cubo space, after entering through a narrow doorway, they find Yellow Nerve (2012/2015), an almost imperceptible work that emphasizes the vast dimensions of the space, playing on its height: a thin, slowly twisting yellow thread hangs down from ceiling to floor. Placed at the far end of the exhibition, this vertical line seems to connect with the horizontal line in Holding the Horizon at the beginning, yielding a metaphorical intersection between different planes.

The artist has designed the show to engage visitors not just through their eyes or intellect, but through their bodily dimensions and all other modes of perception. Balka has therefore placed the works on every surface of the Navate—the floor, walls, and ceiling—and stimulates our senses of hearing, touch, and smell. Hence the videos projected on the ground, the endless echo of black-tinted water that trickles over metal in the looming fountain of Wege zur Behandlung von Schmerzen (2011), or the intense smell that wafts from Soap Corridor (1995)—a work first conceived for the 1993 Venice Biennale—lead visitors to focus on their movement through the space and their presence within it.

Balka analyzes how individuals perceive the space around them, and explores human experience through constant spatial and sensory intersections and contrasts, along a path that reveals the symbolic significance of his works. Springing at times from personal recollections, they constantly summon up an intimate, domestic dimension, as in Common Ground (2013/2016), an installation of doormats collected from houses on a street in Krakow, through which the artist reflects on the concept of entrances and thresholds, and on the privacy of the home, or a collective dimension—like in 7 x 7 x 1010 (2000), a column made from bars of soap evoking the memory of unknown people from Warsaw who used them.

In “CROSSOVER/S,” these individual motifs are also interwoven with references to recent Polish history, and to the collective memory of dramatic events from the past that are still vivid in the present, like World War II and the Holocaust: BlueGasEyes (2004), a video installation in which the image of two gas burners is projected on a layer of salt on the floor, evokes the image of the domestic hearth, but also suggests possibilities of violence; while in the installation 250 x 700 x 455, ø 41 x 41/Zoo/T (2007/2008), the playful connotations of the zoo in the title give way to a dramatic flashblack of the one built in the Treblinka camp for the entertainment of the guards.

Contemporary time does not exist, we cannot catch the continuous. As we move ever into the future we are always based in the past. This is the state of my sculpture […] Everything we touch is coming from the past, it’s our access to death. For me the important thing in my art is to try to catch that consciousness of life. (in Frances Morris, “Dawn,” exhibition guide, Tate Gallery 1995-1996)

In the exhibition at Pirelli HangarBicocca, past and present constantly intersect, mapping out a journey through time where personal memories and myths are tied to the collective ones of a population, shedding light on complex historical dynamics still difficult to face.

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