History of Darkness

Writer: Ram Jung

Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Polish artist, Miroslaw Balka’s project “How It Is,” simply offers a vast history of darkness, a layering of connections, concepts and facts, sources and references that are devoid of hierarchy and proper conjunctions of personal and historical memory.

In the process of preparing this work, Balka made a rough list of his sources – references to people, books, myths, historical facts, artworks and other triggers for his thinking that provide clues to the possible analysis of the many strata of meanings in this work. Balka both resists and embraces the reduction of references to the process of symbolization: he tests the relativity or even the inutility of symbols through the transitivity of meanings of the referent, refusing to establish a formal grammar or a fixed lexical grouping. After passing through the process of establishing the idea, Balka made the sculpture which consists of a ramp, a large steel box and darkness. In rational terms, 3900 cubic meters (30x10x13m) is the volume of darkness it contains.

Once inside “How It Is”, one’s inability to see in the dark generates a perceptual loss, so that one’s entire experience is subjected to a sociological dissolution. In this way, Balka inverts the modern function of art: rendering visible. The task of “How It Is,” conversely, is rendering invisible. In his work, visitors experience a state of topographical agnosia. They must use senses other than vision to navigate the internal space. Isolated in darkness, the visitor experiences a semantic wandering, where objects, places, names, people, forms, and sounds lose meaning. The less we see in real darkness – the more perfect that darkness is –the more transparent its concept becomes. In this way Balka shapes the lexical meaning of darkness into its textual meaning in history.

The sculpture draws on an unexpected glossary of darkness to create a minimal and alternative semantic articulation of the language of darkness. Its palette of darkness is a poetic project to reconcile reason and imagination in concrete contexts. As in other works in his oeuvre, the physical structure of “How It Is” disorients accepted social and political systems. To decipher darkness is to understand the concepts, values and facts that are enunciated in “How It Is,” a porous structure that absorbs subjective processes like the fear of the uncontrollable and the unknown. Refusing a totalitarian solution, “How It Is” becomes an invitation to thinking in terms of a ‘discontinuous form.’

How it is at Tate Modern , 13 October 20095 April 2010