MIROSLAW BALKA is one of Poland's most prominent artists today. Born in December 1958 in Warsaw, he graduated in 1985 from the Sculpture Department of Warsaw's Academy of Fine Arts. It was already then that Balka first came to the attention of the art world, when he invited teachers and guests to travel by bus to see his end-of-year show at an abandoned farmstead in the village of Zukow. After finishing the journey's last kilometer on foot, his public was introduced by two young boys dressed in ceremonial clothes to a viewing of Souvenir of the First Communion, an almost life-sized statue of an adolescent dressed in a suit, his hand resting on a small table on which there was a photo of the artist himself taken on the day of his first communion. A small red heart - a tailor's needle pad - was fastened to the figure's cement jacket, and upon arrival, each guest was given a pin to pin into the pad. The dissertation, meant to mark the acquisition of artistic maturity, became a ritual similar to a ceremony confirming religious maturity. The performance was completed by the arrival of Balka himself - his face painted white - on a child's bicycle. This work - now in the collection of Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland, and exhibited in 1995 at the Rites of Passage: Art for the End of Century show at the Tate Gallery in London - was a memorable debut in that it contains the central themes the artist would subsequently go on to develop - the reworking of personal memories, one's relationship with one's body, and an interest in the relationship between the work and the space that contains it.
"Balka's sculptures of the mid-1980s were the first to evince his sense of drama and theatricality. [...] The ambiguous hand gesture makes the boy's mood provocatively unclear. [...] The pleasure or fright of being the center of attention in such a formal ceremony is undercut by the seriousness of the occasion. The sculpture is James Joyce's Stephen Daedalus incarnate". - Peter Schjedahl, Miroslaw Balka - 36.6, exhibition catalogue,The Renaissance Society and the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, Chicago 1992
In the second half of the 1980s, Balka participated in the so-called New Expression movement, creating metaphorical figurative sculptures and sculpture compositions from concrete and jute such as Bad News (1986), St Adalbert (1987), Salt Seller (1988/89), and Midnight Mass (1989). Man and his existence were shown here in a perspective of dramatic opposition between the bodily and the spiritual.
From the figurative to the abstract
Around 1990 Balka changed the language of his artistic expression, moving from the literal depiction of the human figure to a language increasingly abstract and yet at the same time more multi-layered. The human figure disappeared, giving way to traces that represented its absence in the form of everyday objects - a bed, a lamp, a wardrobe - resonant with symbolic meanings. The first work in which the artist completely resigned from the figurative was Good God (Galeria Dziekanka, Warsaw, 1990).
"Since then, signs, traces, dimensions, temperatures, crystallized substances, used materials, sometimes sounds, sometimes smells, replaced representation of the body. The body departed - carnality remained". - Jaromir Jedlinski, former director of Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz
As Balka became interested rather in extensions or markers of the human body - in the forms that accompany the body during our life (bed, coffin, urn), and in the traces left by the body (sweat, urine, sperm, tears), and began constructing simple, ascetic objects or installations that used the dimensions of his own body - height, arm's length, weight, shoe size - as an organizing principle, the artist's works thus nevetheless retained a strongly personal quality. However, the body that is merely suggested in Balka's works is not necessarily his own. Rather, he references his knowledge and experience of his own body in order to suggest our collective fragility and mortality. The suggested but absent body leaves a physical and mental space into which viewers can project themselves.
"Something like sculptural poetry is the result, a sort of haiku of materials and objects. Wooden planks, steel boxes, terrazo slabs, salt, ashes, felt pads, sponge linings, and fabric sacks combine to form subtle theatrical delineations of space. [...] One becomes aware of the empty spaces between and under Balka's things;[...] or how a sponge lining adds a feeling of tenderness or sadness to otherwise cold hard forms. In addition, the significance of salt as a life-giving substance and ashes as the residue of death is magnified in Balka's works". - Peter Schjedahl, Miroslaw Balka - 36.6, The Renaissance Society, Chicago 1992
A piece of old linoleum contains traces of the lives of those who have walked over it, the sharp odor of soap evokes memories of school baths but also tragically recalls the production of soap in the concentration camps. The artist always chooses materials that have a powerful personal significance for him; he then assembles them with a minimalist syntax but in a version that has a markedly subjective dimension, yet is interwoven with reflections on collective historical memory.
In 1993 at the 45th Venice Biennale Balka presented his Soap Corridor and lastrico slabs electrically heated up to the temperature of the human body. His Stockholm monument commemorating victims of the "Estonia" Ferry catastrophe, which Balka realized in 1998 after winning an international competition, had a fixed temperature of 37 C (slightly higher than the human body's normal temperature).
The strongly personal dimension that imbues Balka's work is further exemplified in the exceptional role played in his artistic life by his family house in Otwock on the outskirts of Warsaw, where the artist grew up, and where he later established his studio. His works often relate directly not only to the dimensions of his body, but also to those of the studio. This house, the history inscribed in it, and its materiality and dimensions are a constant source of artistic inspiration for Balka: for his solo show in Warsaw's Zacheta - National Gallery of Art in 2001 (Around 21°15'00"E 52°06'17"N GO - GO), he created a replica of the house on a scale of 1:1. Among the materials Balka uses he intentionally chooses those having their own history, often coming from his home environment. Memory, loss, and the preservation of traces are among the main subjects of Balka's art. Tapping the roots of his personal experience, he brings out the universal in the private.
Balka, with his personal memories of cemeteries, and further affected by collective memories of deportations and death during Wolrd War II, once stated that his way of working could very well be interpreted as a method of coming to terms with a profound fear of death. He reminds us that there is no strict border between death and life. In Balka's wandering following traces of collective memory also echo of the Shoah appears, sounding in his works of seemingly neutral titles as Die Rampe (1994), Selection (1997), or Winterreise (2003). The last one - a video installation presented at the Starmach Gallery in Krakow and the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, is the result of a winter visit he paid to Birkenau. Three videos show a small lake where the ashes of the cremated victims were dumped, and show deer approaching the barbed wire around the camp.
Within seven years after completing his studies, Miroslaw Balka had been included in all of the major international survey exhibitions in Europe, such as Metropolis in Berlin in 1991 and Documenta IX in Kassel in 1992, which secured his reputation as a remarkably focused and sensitive artist. In 1992 he had his first solo U.S. show at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, in 1993 he represented Poland at the Venice Biennale, and in 1995 his work was shown at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.
Balka also represented Poland at the Sydney Biennial (1992, 2006), Sao Paulo Biennial (1998), Liverpool Biennial (1999), and was featured in Venice Biennale group exhibitions in 1990, 2003, and 2005.
His works are in many of the world's major collections, such as the Tate Modern, London; Art Institute of Chicago; Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington; MoCA Los Angeles; New York's MoMA; Fundacion La Caixa, Barcelona; and Muzeum Sztuki,
His individual exhibitions have been held at museums worldwide, including Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain (MAMCS), Strasbourg (2004), Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo (2001), Zacheta - National Art Gallery, Warsaw (2001), S.M.A.K. - Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent (2001), The National Museum of Art, Osaka (2000), Museet for Samtidskunst, Oslo (1997), Tate Gallery, London (1995), Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz (1994), List Visual Arts Center, M.l.T., Cambridge, MA (1993).
Balka has been presented in numerous group shows, among them: Positioning - In the New Reality of Europe, The National Museum of Art - Osaka (2005); In Between, The Art Institute of Chicago & Cultural Center, Chicago (2001); Art in Central Europe - 1949-1999, Fundación Joan Miró, Barcelona (2000); Between Cinema and a Hard Place, Tate Modern, London (2000); Vanitas. Meditations on Life and Death In Contemporary Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA (2000); Absolut Ego, The Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Palais du Louvre, Paris (2000); Miroslaw Balka, Robert Gober, and Seamus Heaney - Three Stanzas, ICA-Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (1999); Wounds between Democracy and Redemption in Contemporary Art, Moderna Museet Stockholm (1998); Distemper, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (1996); Rites of Passage. Art for the End of the Century, Tate Gallery, London (1995).
In 1995 Balka was honored with the prestigious "Polityka" Passport award, given by the most influential Polish weekly. He is the author of a monument to victims of "Estonia" ferry catastrophe in Stockholm (1998). He continues to lives and works in Otwock, near Warsaw.
Balka is represented by the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York City, Galerie Nordenhake in Berlin and Stockholm, Galería Juana de Aizpuru in Madrid, Johan Deumens in Heemstede (The Netherlands), and Galeria Foksal in Warsaw.
SELECTED ARTICLES:Miroslaw Balka: Galleria Raffaella Cortese, by Francesca Pasini, ArtForum, May 2004Private View: Miroslaw Balka to 20 Oct Dundee Contemporary Arts, by Peter Chapman, The Independent (London), September 21, 2002Art: Miroslaw Balka: Tiedtothetoe, by Peter Chapman, The Independent (London), August 24, 2002Miroslaw Balka at Barbara Gladstone, by Gregory Volk, Art in America, April 2002Miroslaw Balka at Museum Haus Lange - Krefeld, Germany, by Lisa Zeiger, Art in America, January 1993
Miroslaw Balka, Souvenir of the First Communion, 1985. Collection of Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz. Photo courtesy of Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz.
Miroslaw Balka, The Salt Seller, 1988. Wood, cement, fabric, salt, approx. 4' high. © Miroslaw Balka 2001. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Miroslaw Balka, History, 1988. Plaster, burlap, straw, steel, ceramic, 74 3/4 in. x 19 3/4 in. x 19 3/4 in. (189.87 cm x 50.17 cm x 50.17 cm). © Miroslaw Balka. Collection of SFMOMA. Photo courtesy of SFMOMA
Miroslaw Balka, Zeitnot, 1996. Steel, soap, and electric cord, 190 x 193 x 97 cm, 190 x 193 x 97 cm, and 210 x 15 x 15 cm. Collection of Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Miroslaw Balka, Dead End, 2002-2004. White Cube, London, exhibition view. Photo courtesy of White Cube, London.