Miroslaw Balka

With a,e,i,o,u, 1997, his most recent installation at Galeria Foksal, Miroslaw Balka once again combined a poetic sensibility with a minimalist vocabulary, endowing carefully chosen objects with potent symbolism rooted in memory and personal experience. Balka sealed the doorway to the gallery with a plaster wall, leaving only two oval holes, which he lined with dog-collars. The openings were located approximately a foot from the floor, forcing viewers who wanted to glance inside the gallery to get down on their knees.

One kneeled and peered through the holes, only to see a darkened space. A sense of inactivity inside the gallery was disturbed by the monotonous sound of barking played in a digital loop—a canine lament suggesting an invisible kennel crowded with animals. In the narrow corridor leading to the gallery, Balka placed shreds of another dog collar, like remnants of a beloved, long-vanished pet. They anchored his art in memories of the past, much like the pieces of soap and ashes he found in his grandparent’s house and “recycled” in earlier works. “Every day I walk in the paths of the past,” Balka once remarked.

For Balka, Galeria Foksal, which has been presenting exhibitions of work by innovative Polish and foreign artists since the mid ’60s, is a “psychological second home,” just as it was for the great Polish theater director and artist Tadeusz Kantor (an important precursor of Balka’s). Kantor’s art exploring personal memories-turned-into-nightmares was also exhibited there frequently. “Wrecks—our past is full of wrecks; wrecked paintings, wrecked ideas,” Kantor once wrote. In Warsaw, a city with a particularly tragic history, even Allen Ginsberg’s voice still reverberates in this space without sounding outdated: “O Polish specters what you’ve suffered since Chopin wept into his romantic piano.”

In the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, critic Adam Szymczyk identifies the cluster of vowels in the installation’s title as the third “non-signifying” component of the work (the first two are the darkness and barking sounds). The three elements converge to form an entity, as the vowels serve as a semantic code for the barking that vanishes into the darkness. As Szymczyk notes, the presence of the five vowels (a, e, o, u) raises the question of absence: “What happened to the ”y“ (which is vocalic in Polish)?” The answer is that the y was dropped to endow the installation with “incompleteness,” so that it cannot be read literally. Balka states he does not want this work to be perceived, for instance, as “an allegory of a post-Doomsday world where, according to Luther: God will create a new earth and a new heaven and people it with little dogs whose skin shall be gold and whose hair shall be of precious stones.

This apocalyptic reference seemed rather farfetched, since the exhibition was so visually stark and heavily ironic, while Szymczyk’s closing statement that with the dogs in a,e,i,o,u “we await miracles” sounded unnecessarily dramatic. However, the installation’s delightful combination of formal simplicity and eerie content (hallmarks of Balka’s work for over a decade) encouraged one to explore all kinds of anxieties, obsessions, and hopes.

Marek Bartelik