Performance Publishing

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.

After recently coming across Novalis’ statement that the true reader must be an extension of the author, I began thinking about how readers become the final “producers” of the “screenplay” they’re reading and more specifically, about how the settings in novels and stories are constructed in the reader’s mind. While reading the first volume of Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ not too long ago, I had imagined the setting of the fictional town Combray to be based on the neighbourhood where I live, Ealing. My flat, located in a two-story ex-council building, became not unlike a stage on which the narrator’s childhood house in Combray was constructed. My room had become the narrator’s bedroom. It lost its stacks of papers, books and Ikea-esque furniture and acquired high ceilings and long curtains that flanked the now wooden-framed windows. The narrator’s “magic lantern” which would project colourful figures of a medieval knight and castle, now cast these figures onto my wallpaper. The view from the windows changed from that of a small back garden with a clothes hanger to that of a vast garden with an orchard visible in the distance. My room on the ground floor had now moved to the first floor and was found at one end of a long corridor lined with paintings in ornate frames. At the other end of the corridor was a staircase which lead down to my living room where, the narrator writes, the family would entertain dinner guests. The view from this dining room window incorporated my neighbour’s trees through which could be seen the distant steeple of Combray’s church.

This hybrid house and neighbourhood came into being as I began to modify my flat and surroundings to more closely match the descriptions of the narrator’s house and surroundings. I hadn’t consciously decided to base Combray on Ealing, rather, the spatial arrangement of my neighbourhood and street had simply “appeared” in Proust’s descriptions. The fact that I read most of the book at home might explain why the surrounding environment had somehow become part of the novel. With other novels it seems that the settings are usually based on familiar places: those from everyday life, those remembered from childhood or settings from films.

Last year I had a similar experience of my surroundings being used in imagining a place. While travelling on a train at dusk somewhere in southern Poland, the landscape outside the window seemed to have seeped into Borges’ short story, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, which I was then reading. The narrator describes the history and structure of the utopian world, Tlön, which he learns about from a single volume of an encyclopaedia of Tlön. The existence of this planet, though, remains uncertain throughout the story. Created (or imagined) by a secret group of scientists, this world is governed by a Berkeleyan idealism. On Tlön, novels and stories have plots that include all possible variations. Objects can cease to exist once someone forgets them (once a doorway disappeared after a beggar who would visit it often died). The snow-covered fields I saw from the train window began to provide an image of Tlön and it became a planet whose external features would solely consist of fields of snow, occasional railroad crossings, derelict small railway stations, signal boxes and forests, all in a perpetual dusk. (Other objects and places perhaps had already disappeared as a result of being forgotten.) The story continues on to describe how the press then spread the discovery of the literature about Tlön and soon after our world was obliterated by Tlön. Its history replaced our history, its language would soon replace English, Spanish and French. The world would become Tlön. It would become vast expanses of snow and railway track at dusk.

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cites, Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan the cities he has seen in his travels. By the end of the novel, it becomes apparent that all the cities refer in fact to Venice. One of the cities, Baucis, is a city entirely built on stilts projecting from the ground and extending above the clouds. Marco Polo states that one possible explanation for the placement of the city above ground is the inhabitants’ love for the earth as it was before they had existed. Consequently they prefer to observe the uninhabited earth with telescopes. If Baucis’ inhabitants prefer to observe from a distance, then maybe they are like readers, looking down into another place or planet, their view of it partly obscured as a result of that distance and partly created through their imagined presence in that other space.

Julie Rafalski is an artist living and working in London, especially in video.  Is she Polish? American? Perhaps  ‘European’ makes more sense. Julie Graduated from the Slade in 2006 and has contributed to the Henningham Family Press since 2005. In one film she asked Polish contacts what was missing under Soviet influence, but soon conversation turns to what is missing today; the oppressed exchange one lack for another.