Recently I read about the latest commission for Tate’s Turbine Hall, an installation by Miroslaw Balka. Entitled ‘How It Is’, after a prose work by Samuel Beckett, the piece was described by one critic as “a darkness you struggle to measure, or rather a darkness that measures you.”
Through the secondary sources of online photographs and descriptions, I began to form a seemingly concrete image of the piece, a kind of preliminary version of the installation. The future experience of walking into this black void became almost palpable: A huge steel box-like structure stands in the Turbine Hall. Raised from the ground by several metres, it rests on stilt-like beams that allow one to walk underneath the structure. As one enters through the ramp on one side a giant black space looms ahead. It is silent and the air is heavy with the smell of felt (not unlike in Joseph Beuys’ felt-lined room).
As one walks further into this seemingly unending space, the sounds from the main hall are drowned out. The interior walls are curved and form a spiral-like labyrinth (somewhat reminiscent of Richard Serra’s pieces).
Once inside this dark labyrinth, one has no guarantee one will be able to return the way one had come. The curved corridor continues, until the entrance disappears from view. The darkness is intractable. Then suddenly around another corner a faint light glimmers, the sounds of the hall return and one is back at the entrance ramp.
I doubted that this was the piece Balka had created. I knew that when I would see the actual installation, it would be like travelling to a city which one has only read about. The imagined version of this void would dissolve once confronted with reality, or perhaps it would become a projection.
The former was the case when I went to see ‘How It Is’. From the back the structure looked like a giant container of a freight train. The black steel entrance ramp was the size of one of the walls of the structure and gave off a hallow sound when one walked on it. Stepping onto it was like stepping onto a stage or into a territory where other rules governed. I followed a few people inside and watched their contours disappear into the blackness. For a while they remained barely discernible, only because they happened to be wearing white. There was no smell of felt, the walls were lined with black velvet. My eyes almost hurt because of the lack of anything to see. There was no way of telling how far the back wall was or if there was a back wall at all, but I knew there must be some sort of a boundary to this void.
I treaded slowly, aware how uncertain everything had suddenly become. Then the flat velvet surface of a wall in front of me touched my hand. There had been no labyrinth; the space followed the form of a box. I turned around. What the art critics failed to mention and what I hadn’t foreseen was what happens after one turns around. This, it seemed, was the heart of the piece. The Turbine Hall’s light was streaming in from the entrance defining the floor and the contours of the other people. The space that was so uncertain and overwhelming a few moments ago was suddenly illuminated and clear. From within the darkest darkness, everything else was marginally brighter, everything was visible.