A refreshingly earnest look at Europe's dark past
It is, in case you didn't know it, Polska! Year, an official campaign aiming to introduce Polish culture to the British public. One of the highlights is Topography by the artist Miroslaw Balka, who is also the creator of Tate Modern's current Turbine Hall exhibit: a black box that is luring crowds into its dark centre. How we remember and how we choose to forget are his subjects. "Every day," he says, "I walk in the paths of the past." The grandson of a gravestone carver, Balka claims: "Contemporary time does not exist. We cannot catch the continuous."
In the flickering, black-and-white shadows of his videos, projected on to the gallery walls at Modern Art Oxford, images return, again and again, like troubling dreams. Born in 1958, the shadow of the Holocaust haunts Balka's work. On the far wall of the gallery, there is a projection of a frozen pond surrounded by trees in a snowy landscape. The uncanny stillness and apparent silence tap into the romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich and those half-remembered illustrations from childhood fairy tales. It is a genuine shock, then, to learn that this idyll is the site of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Suddenly, we are forced to ask what this place has witnessed, what it remembers or keeps veiled behind this neutralising blanket of snow. In Bambi, 2003, young deer forage in the snow looking for food. They leap over the ribbons of rusting barbed wire that encircle the ghostly vestiges of the camp's prison compound. The title implies the danger of Disney-fying history, of turning away from the truth by making such places into "Holocaust theme parks".
In recent works, such as Flagellare A, B and C 2009, Balka offers a more physical, less literal expression of both ritual and violence, drawing parallels between the two. Videos inserted in the floor show the shadow of a leather belt whipping the gallery floor, which seems to have transformed into a canvas of skin. The repeated swish suggests not only brutal torture but also Christian flagellation, with its motifs of guilt, redemption and reparation. There is something painterly about the way the soft, blue-and-yellow light flits across the surface.
It is no coincidence that, within classical religious art, light implies the spiritual and the divine. These are complex, multilayered works. Sound accompanies a number of the videos: the burr of a truck driver's foot on an accelerator accompanied by a Polish lullaby or a clockwork wind-up toy shuffling around the studio. These desensitise and disorientate.
Talking with Balka, I suggest that in Polish contemporary art such soul-searching is much less common than among postwar German artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys or Georg Baselitz. He tells me that, being younger, he has had to educate himself about the Holocaust and that, having done so, he now has a responsibility to communicate this knowledge through his art. It is an idealistic and refreshingly uncynical view. "We are," he says, "so close to the erasure of the subject that, by making such work, maybe there can continue to be an honest dialogue."
Miroslaw Balka Topography at Modern Art Oxford until 7 March 2010