Miroslaw Balka at White Cube Masons’ Yard

I read the Interpretation of Dreams by Freud a few years ago and became completely obssessed with this apparent all-encompassing keys that could unlock our hidden motives and desires throughout our dreams. I then made the naive mistake of sharing this enthusiasm with a Jungian who berated me on liking one of “the greatest impostures of the 20th century.” Now I still enjoy the Interpretation of Dreams but less for its answer to a question and listing of a series of references than its literary, historical and psychological appeal in relation to our subconcious and ourselves…and our constant need for clear responses.

Miroslaw Balka’s exhibition DIE TRAUMDEUTUNG 25,31m AMSL at White Cube Masons’ Yard, using both the building’s measurements and the original German title of Freud’s work, seems to treat this question in relation to works throughout the exhibition that he dissiminates with reference to Freud’s own life and his relation to the war that shook its very foundations. As a Polish artist, Balka weaves through different spaces and lets both surface and literary substance create an overall effect of melancholy and uncertainly over the space at Masons’ Yard. A second exhibition at the Freud Museum acts as a perfect complement to this one, like dispersed fragments that all together create meaning like the pieces of a puzzle. But do they, ultimately?

In the first room, a large plinth-like sculpture, 100x100x20 (2014), through which a feeble light shines through complements a large trapezohedron tipped to the side and opened. It would almost appear as though one sculpture had toppled off the other and rolled to the side, an asymmetrical and instable composition despite its clean-cut execution. The plinth remains both a humorous and chilling mystery. Was it meant to present a figure that has been erased? Or was this figure conspicuously absent to begin with? Is the light shining through a small hole at its centre a sign of hope or of imprisonment?

100 x 100 x 20, TTT, Miroslaw Balka  (2)
Miroslaw Balka 100 x 100 x 20, TTT 2014 Concrete and LED Dimensions variable © Miroslaw Balka Photo: Jack Hems

The geometrical sculpture, TTT (2014), makes up for the plinth’s elusiveness with a complex layer of references. The trapezohedron featured in Durer’s engraving Melancholia I…itself at the centre of an immense amount of diverse interpretations regarding the accumulation of detail and possible symbols within the image. From the angel to the hourglass through to the scales, it is possible to pore over the details endlessly trying to search its true meaning. It seems to refer back smoothly to the Interpretation of Dreams by Freud, a book where interpretation is scientific yet ultimately subjective to Freud and the way he wants to make all dream-objects conform to his specific thesis. The trapezohedron is empty; does this make it empty of meaning as well, or empty in the sense in which it is ultimately a reference to a reference? Ultimately, the trapezohedron is just as elusive in the end. And that is not even going into the references to Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold in which a dwarf wears a hemlet of the same shape…and Wagner’s added associations with Nazism.

Melencolia_I_(Durero)
Dürer, Melancholia I (1514)

Down towards the lower grounds, the dimly lit staircase and corridors create a architectural canvas for the whistling that echoes off the walls, to the theme of ‘The Great Escape’. This could be seen as more than slightly jarring, especially in relation to the next part of the exhibition at the Freud Museum. There, a letter by a German officer details the materials needed for the construction of the Treblinka concentration camp, in which Freud lost his three sisters; while he managed to escape to London to 1938, he lost them to the war he left behind.

The Great Escape
Miroslaw Balka The Great Escape 2014 Audio Duration: 6.48 (looped) © Miroslaw Balka Photo: Jack Hems

This is juxtaposed to a set of sculptures that appear as empty crates and devoid of meaning…until it is realized that their mesurements correspond to the amount of material detailed in the letter. Simple numbers become personal tragedies. In the same way The Great Escape is inspired by a true story…one that is still commemorated in Poland, on the 24th of March. Out of the 76 Allied prisoners of war to flee the Stalag Luft III camp, 73 were recaptured and among those, 50 were shot. Only three managed to escape successfully. Three lives against three deaths in this exhibition; between inspiration and interpretation from these events, the notion of collective histories and memories is poignantly and soberly rendered in abstract terms.

Above your head, Miroslaw Balka (3)
Miroslaw Balka Above your head 2014 Steel Dimensions vaiable © Miroslaw Balka Photo: Jack Hems

Above your head (2014) comprises of a steel meshed, fence-like ceiling that, low slung across the ceiling, as though ready to crush the visitors beneath, or at least limit their movements, as though we were trapped behind a barrier and the entire space warped, flipped horizintally. The effect is undeniably meant to be smothering, oppressive, an all-too clear reference to imprisonment and freedom, as the celing and to a larger extent the sky seem barred to us. Yet when I visited there was almost a peaceful, soothing quality to the work as well, in its purely formal qualities. Perhaps it was the fact that the space itself, despite the drastic lowering of the ceiling, was still large enough to allow a sense of movement and of the freedom that we were meant to miss. However I would not really see this as the work failing to acheive its aims but rather creating ambivalent reactions and emotions. The muted lights and shadow on the ground, the particular, pleasant smell that seemed to linger there create a sense of comfort that we might want to confront within ourself: how is it possible to become accustomed to evolving in a space with a huge fence-prison sword of Damocles above our heads?

I’m raising a lot of questions here, but so does the exhibition in itself. The Interpretation of Dreams is highly unlikely and unsatisfactory if you see it as a documentary means to an end in “decoding” dreams rather than a piece of literature that was a testimony to our desire to uncover the inner workings of our subconscious. The exhibition ends outside the confined space with, during the opening, the presentation of Y-Chromosomal Adam, an elongated piece of black fabric through which a rush of air is brutally funnelled, making it reach towards the sky in rippling, ominous and undeniably phallic movements.

Miroslaw Balka’s assessment and handling of the references that are dotted throughout the exhibition is made through abstraction and lightness, the minimalism of the works thelselves leaving enough space for the weighty concepts surrounding them. It contrasted for me with Christian Jankowski’s recent Heavy Weight History exhibition at Lisson Gallery, in which the physical, palpable weight of history and memory was rendered by athletes attempting to lift the historical landmarks of Warsaw. Powerful but fleeting, Balka’s work is perhaps less an interpretations of dreams than one of memory, and the way in which we try to piece history back into place from the fragments we receive from the past, between undeniable fact and powerful, overwhelming emotion.

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