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A pillar, of salt, in human form. Lot's wife could not help but look back. It is the ultimate and very human gesture. And salt is life. Salt is death. For centuries the lowly sat at high-born tables, but 'below the salt-line,' where it was withheld. In the past, workers were in part paid in salt (hence: 'worth his salt'). Salt is precious. Without it, we die. It is life. And, conversely, when the Romans forever wiped Carthage off the earth, they salted the ground where it once stood; so that nothing might ever grow there again -- a certain death; death sealed with salt.
Miroslaw Balka's The Salt Seller is a new acquisition at the Art Institute of Chicago. It will be highlighted from among the riches of that institution until March 25, 2001, to complement the city-wide exposition of Post-World War II Polish art: "In Between: Art from Poland 1945-2000," now at the Chicago Cultural Center (reviewed earlier in www.artscope.net).
The Art Institute's gallery section 262 is not the easiest to find. Enter from the Michigan entrance, go straight to the Chagall stained glass windows, and make a right; through the doorway, turn left and up a flight of stairs (to the Rice annex, second floor) and then turn left again, into Room 262. To your left, in the center of the gallery floor -- The Salt Seller: a sculpture worth the effort.
Miroslaw Balka was born in Otwock, outside of Warsaw, Poland. As the grandson of a funerary-monument sculptor, Balka had a long, personal exposure to his grandfather's art. And, born in 1958, a child of the post-war legacy, he came into this world surrounded by that war's consequence. The gallery label for Balka's sculpture calls attention to "preservation, human tears, the bitterness of poverty." That is certainly contained in the work. But, for some, such observations have an added dimension. To ask why, and why this works strikes a vital nerve, is not simply rhetoric.
Societies, amorphous and ambiguous, are somehow, despite it all, distinctive entities. Today, visitors are led to the Majdanek memorial in Eastern Poland. At Majdanek, there is an enormous architectural bowel. Protected from the elements, it is filled with tons upon tons of ashes... all human: the residue of its crematoria. In the city of Lodz, Poland, on the terrain of the former Jewish ghetto, the Nazis built their Kinderverkehrslager, a Concentration Camp for small children. Some were seized, initially, as hostages against partisan activity; others, increasingly so with time, were categorically 'undesirables' -- Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, the children of ideological uncertainties. They were worked, but all were, at the end, slated for extermination. Only a handful survived. There is in Lodz a stone monument -- children marching, single file, into the cleft of a sundered heart: a specific remembrance, an honoring, a love. Post-war Poland arose upon and above so many such sites. People are said to grow wise with tears -- perhaps that comes with too much pain and death -- but we are always ready to forget. Auschwitz is at least known to an American public: but it stands as icon for many such more. A generation disappeared. And, like Lot's wife, the artist cannot help but look back. One of the first responses to Balka's The Salt Seller is... Lot; in grief, beside a mound of salt. It was all he had left to sell.
"Preservation, human tears, a bitterness of poverty": Miroslaw Balka captures much -- in a simplified, an elemental idiom; with prosaic, fundamental materials. The Salt Seller is sculpture... 'Art'; on display in a famed museum. But here, also, is communal history, Man's inheritance. The artist interprets that into a mute, striking image of humanity. (Isn't this, after all, a revealing power to art -- What every follower of art should demand as the price of his attention?)
The Salt Seller portrays a human creature formed from coarse-weave burlap and cement; a figure caught with knees crouched, in an almost sitting position; and, further, with the brunt of its upper wrists pressed against its lowered eyes: a hiding countenance. Beside this human form there sits a cone of salt. There are no obvious clues: the viewer must make conclusions on his own. At first, one searches accepted poses, the 'tropes,' of a Rodin: 'The Thinker' (1880), here did, momentarily, come to mind. But Auguste Rodin's work is carved in stone: meditative, brooding, noble, and composed. Rodin was the product of a world still with protocols. Balka's The Salt Seller is a wounded common man given over to grief; as basic and humble as the artist's materials. One also thinks of American sculptor, George Segal -- that artist did treat Lot, and Jacob's Dream as he turned from Pop toward human content. But much of Segal's mature art was directly addressed to social and political issues. And Segal usually cast his plaster figures from life. Balka, at times employs very contemporary elements such as neon lights, and pipe. The Exhibition Notes for his three pieces at the Chicago Cultural Center showing further mention "...remainders of soap bars, terrazzo, salt, or even dust and Christmas tree needles... an unclear and veiled reference to motifs from the artist's own and his family's biography." However, Balka ventures further into raw human experience. Specific events do influence his art: his 1998 Stockholm monument for the victims of the Estonia ferry disaster is a moving example. This Polish sculptor focuses on life and body; particulars are momentary contexts.
Miroslaw Balka was born into the aftermath of a still incomprehensible history. And there are no words: there is only art. The Salt Seller, as is common for Balka, is formed in materials earlier deemed unsuitable for High Art. As human history seems to fall away from distinction, discernment, perhaps even judgement, as it grows more perilous, the artist's construction mix, neon lights, pre-fab Bauhaus blocks of edifice, common, often neglected materials, seem ever more appropriate; and newly significant. The gallery cites this piece,The Salt Seller, as a "visceral and elegiac work that, utilizing familiar, worn and humble materials, quietly explores the issues of memory, mourning, Catholicism, and the history of the Holocaust." Beyond all words, regard the art.
Miroslaw Balka's The Salt Seller does in deed offer salt: salt in life's wounds... a profound sorrow. (Each life is linked to every life... a hurt to one is a hurt to all.) Take time, and take another, long, considered look at Balka's The Salt Seller. We say 'salt of the earth'; and mean a creating spring of life. "But if the salt has lost its savour..." Balka's art completes the possibilities. He has a kindred soul in an American poet:
Salt is death. And salt is life. Balka's The Salt Seller is an homage to the dead, but it is as well as call to the living. It solicits compassion and contemplation. It is authentic art.
Miroslaw Balka's The Salt Seller, a new acquisition at the Art Institute of Chicago, will be showcased in gallery section 262 until March 25, 2001. It is a permanent purchase, and also a collaborative showing with "In Between: Art from Poland, 1945-2000," a Chicago-wide exposition of Post-World War II Polish art. In that latter, concurrent exhibition, Balka is represented by three works from 1999: In. 176 x 90 x 53, and In. 01 x 1000, 227 x 97 x 90; both executed in steel, hair, heating cables, and felt. The third piece, In. 73 x 90 x 56, is composed with steel and paper. The metric dimensions relate the artist's esoteric wisdom about his life and body.
Additional information on Miroslaw Balka may be found at http://nmao.go.jp/eng/2000/balka.html and at http://www.aspectspositions.org/bios/polandbios.html.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Books cited in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's Barnes & Noble link. Stephen Crane is cited from The Complete Poems of Stephen Crane (Ed. Joseph Katz, Cornell University: 1972).
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