The Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall has housed many of the UK’s most widely-publicised art installations, including the giant playground of Carsten Holler’s Test Site and the still visible crack (Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth) along the hallway floor. In October, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei will take over the space; how he chooses to use it will offer the western world an intriguing glimpse into modern Chinese art and culture.
Amid the clamour for a new installation, the current Turbine Hall exhibition, Miroslaw Balka’s How It Is, has taken a back seat. This certainly wasn’t the case a few months ago, as large crowds and injuries to confused elderly visitors brought back memories of those whose ankles fell victim to Salcedo’s installation. Critics argued that the gallery had gone too far in causing such a commotion quite literally over nothing. Well, not quite over nothing; Balka’s piece has empty space at it’s heart – but it’s encased in a giant metal box.
How It Is, inspired by the attritional Samuel Beckett novel of the same name, invites visitors to walk up a steel ramp (effectively the box’s fourth wall, as if it has been prised open) and into the structure itself. Standing at the top of the ramp, the black expanse in front of you appears endlessly high and unfathomably deep. The argument that Balka’s box is little more than a statement on art installation can be countered by the stirring sensation that confronts you as you step into the darkness.
Inside the box, it is incredible how quickly the darkness encircles the audience. Faces of those around you become no more than pale grey outlines, and for me at least, the confident walk in becomes a slow, unsteady stumble forward. Looking back at the entrance, it seems impossible that the entrance and the brightly-lit hall beyond is still only feet away. It is with a huge sense of relief that we find a felt-lined wall barring our path, only halfway along the length of the box.
Turning back towards the light, the experience becomes even more bewildering; looking back, the wall and the box’s other inhabitants are all clearly visible, even as we exit Balka’s ingenious box of tricks. How It Is may not make connect with the grandiose intentions set out in the installation’s explanatory notes – it is, after all, basically a storage unit with no lights in it. What it does so effectively is involve your senses in the whole process, making each person’s ability to adapt to the unsettling surroundings part of the artwork. Whatever your experience of stepping into the darkness, it’s clear Balka has created much more than a whole lot of nothing.