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  • Terry Channell

Miroslaw Balka and why I paint: reflections on ‘Remembrance of the First Holy Communion’

Miroslaw Balka’s early works ‘explore the imprint of the artist’s past on his adult persona’[1]. In this essay, I wish to use the work Balka presented for his graduation show as a starting point for examining how the past can be represented in art. My particular interest relates to the emergence of my childhood experiences in my art, and how I should respond to this unexpected event.

I do not choose to examine my past, I have almost no recollection of my childhood, but it emerges in my work regardless. For example, a sketch produced during an extended series of work on the subject of cloth later revealed itself as a representation of my father on his deathbed. I had no conscious thought of this when making the work, but I could not have made a better artistic statement on the last time I was with my father. This is the most explicit example of my past emerging unbidden; more frequently motifs appear in my work that represent aspects of my sense of childhood.

Figure 1: Cloth 10 (2015)

Pastel and watercolour on tracing paper

Remembrance of the First Holy Communion (1985) was Balka’s graduation piece. I have not seen the work, but read a description, that was dominated, in my mind, by the unusual circumstances surrounding its curation (particularly as I was, at the time, nearing my graduation show). Balka had installed the work in a small, deserted house outside of the town, and viewers were bused to view it, with Balka riding alongside on a bicycle. The description of his work and its curation was accompanied by a small, photocopied black and white grainy and darkened image that made little impression on me.

My initial response to this work was largely cerebral – I was thinking about context, place and meaning. However, on turning the page I unexpectedly saw a whole page, colour photograph of the work. I was completely overwhelmed. The vulnerability of this adolescent, shabbily dressed in short trousers, ragged jacket and long socks, and with scraped knees, reverberated with a sense of my childhood. The physical signs of vulnerability were enhanced by the sense of transition, from childhood to adulthood, from not-knowing to knowing. In that instant of viewing, I had moved in the other direction. From knowing, intellectually, to being confounded and confused. This connection was direct and emotional, I did not need to know about Catholic ritual or Polish history to have a response to the work.

Figure 2: Remembrance of the First Holy Communion (1985)

How should I respond to Holy Communion; or rather, how should I respond to my response? I find that I can now approach the work again through an aesthetic appreciation, and recognise further features that resonate; notably the battered and worn table that sits well with the overall ‘setting’ of the work as a memory held. The boy has a pose that, for me, echoes the stance of classic full length portraiture – the subject stands with his hands resting on a table that contains symbolic objects, with the face turned away from the viewer, gazing into the distance, as if in deep thought. I can intellectualise what I see, enframing it in an aesthetic appreciation.

My initial response could, therefore, be dismissed as overwrought emotion that is inappropriate for art theory or criticism. I argue that this is not the case. My experience is that, in unguarded moments, hidden emotions and pre-occupations rise up, leading to moments of truth or revelation. I have written elsewhere about these moments[1], and have come to respect them as signifiers, worthy of serious consideration. In the case of Holy Communion, a dismissive reaction to my first response echoes my sense of how emotion and creativity were treated when I was a child - ‘don’t be so silly’ was the normal, humiliating response. Furthermore, this was my mother’s experience when expressing any intellectual or creative sentiment; a highly intelligent person who had the misfortune to be the firstborn in a farming family – of no use on the farm and who wastes her time with books. So, Balka’s work has a resonance. It may not have been his intention, but Holy Communion has revealed a truth about my, and my families, past.

How does this model of response, a direct evocation of the past for the viewer, apply to Balka’s other works? Fire Place (1976) marks, for me, a mid-way step between figuration and abstraction; a recognisably human form presented in a semi-abstracted form.

Figure 3: Fire Place (1976)

Abstraction, for me, sets up a mechanism that can forestall, or mitigates an immediate emotional response. We may have some sympathy for such a disconsolate character, and gain some sense of the mood of the piece through the accompanying artefacts, and speculate on their meaning. But a heightened sensibility is rarely enough. An awareness of the artist’s general concerns – an assertion of a ‘historical existence in the present’[2], - and an awareness of his motifs – obituary notices to ‘provide a contemporary focus to the inevitable evocations of the past’[3]– is also needed. Each informs, but also intellectualises and creates a sense of distance from the viewer.

I would like to extend this line of thinking to another work. Kategorie (2005) is fully abstracted. I do not know what a direct, physical encounter would be; does the ‘presence’ of this work convey its meaning? Certainly, once the references to concentration camps and their inevitable bureaucracy are made clear, the full force of human emotion is brought to bear. A visceral response, mediated through a common understanding and intellectualised process.

Figure 4: Kategorie (2005)

The point I make here is not so much a commentary on Balka’s work, but on the nature of the response to an artwork where, on the one hand, one has a direct, unmediated emotional response, as with Holy Communion; and, on the other, a response informed through a shared way of looking and a shared set of values that are communicated alongside the direct experience of the artwork (as in Kategorie). The latter requires an investment in understanding the artist and his or her concerns, and means of production; and these yield, perhaps, a different response than a direct emotional hit.

I shall characterise this ‘meta data’ about an artist and his work by adapting Heidegger’s concept of enframement[4]. Heidegger claims that through aesthetics, we come to a work with a pre-determined set of values, a ‘knowing eye’ (Sullivan, 2005 p11), that stop us appreciating the work for what it truly is. I argue that enframement is a necessary part of understanding abstracted, and particularly conceptual, art. This implies that there are a common set of values that are known, or able to be transmitted, separately from the work, but necessary to contextualise it. Without enframement, an unmade bed is just an unmade bed

These are important issues for me in understanding Balka’s practice, and his way of ‘holding’ the past. Balka can maintain a ‘fidelity to the workings of memory’[5] because, in part, there is a shared memory of, or at least awareness of, Catholicism or the concentration camps; and his work can be seen as maintaining this memory, a standing against the ‘aesthetic of forgetting’[6].

Unlike Balka, I cannot refer explicitly to the ‘minutiae of childhood’[7] in my work, as I have no direct memory of it. My childhood plays out in my life and work as moods and feelings that, generally, have no conscious connection to anything that is happening in the present. Only when references to a damaged childhood is made (or can be implied) does the connection become evident, as with ‘Holy Communion’. Even here, there is only a generalised sense of fear and apprehension, with memory hovering some way away.

If I do not have memories of the ‘minutiae of childhood’, perhaps I could, at least, make reference to shared memories through cultural references; a parallel to Balka’s Catholicism, for example. References to this time, the 60’s, are swamped by the ‘cultural revolution’ of the alternative lifestyle that played little or no part in most people’s lives. I do not have memories that I could deploy to present a compellingly different picture, and the thought of investigating this time by research triggers a feeling of nervous tension, a warning to steer clear.

I do not have a conscious memory or a set of shared values that I could deploy, as Balka does, and yet my past does appear in my work. The fact that my past appears in my work by subterfuge suggests that it is available, but not explicitly. My practice that has provided the right environment for indirect allusions to my childhood to be made.

I’m a painter. Paint is neutral. The building blocks of Balka’s practice - a sculpture of a boy, a pair of shoes or coloured string - have, or can be given, associations for the viewer. Painting is simply pigment and oil pressed onto a flat surface. As such it can be used safely, with no toxic associations. Clearly, colour in itself has meaning but it can be handled safely in this state by the artist; it can detoxify and bring forth that which is too difficult to address directly.

I think that this gets to the point of the matter for me and my practice. The properties that enable paint to address deeply defended personal experiences, are also those that allow me to undertake my primary purpose in painting – investigation.

Research based practice gives a sense of what I do, and my work is informed by Heidegger’s philosophy and the psychology of art developed by Ehrenzweig. The act of painting, and the creative processes that surround it, allow me to investigate the world beyond what we see, but is real all the same.

An essential part of this process of investigation is the way in which, by focussing on external objects, we can reveal the hidden. The ‘innocence’ of paint, and the distraction of the external, provides a means, and a safe haven, for the hidden to be revealed. As Ehrenzweig states:

‘somehow – and this is the paradox – our involvement with outer events is far better able to express our real preoccupations than a direct attempt at looking inside ourselves’.[8]

I argue that this process, originally intended to reveal the ‘hidden’ world of Heidegger, is also the process that allows my past to emerge.

Examining Balka’s handling of the past through three of his works, I have been able to reflect on how I have addressed my past, and on the necessity of paint as a mediator that allows me to say what cannot be said. There are also issues revealed around how we view and respond to artworks, both emotionally and intellectually. My work, and the way in which it is viewed, seems to sit at the emotional end of the spectrum, where the viewer senses his or her response. Balka has given me the opportunity to start to understand and investigate this process – the transfer of knowledge through feeling is a preliminary way of expressing it – and I now need to consider this aspect of my practice as I develop new research and work.

[1] Morgan, S., (1995) Rites of Passage. London: Tate Gallery Publications p32

[2] Heidegger and the Yup’ik: Practice Based Research

[3] Morgan, S. (1995) p34

[4] Ibid p34

[5] Heidegger ref

[6] Dillon, B., (2011) Ruins London, Whitechapel Gallery p128

[7] Ibid 128

[8] Ibid 124

[9] Ehrenzweig, A (1971) The Hidden Order of Art, Berkley: University of California Press. p 143

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