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> > > Miroslaw Balka at Tate Modern

Miroslaw Balka is the latest artist to fill the vast public space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. His work, How It Is, is a giant black space, almost completely without light, enclosed within a giant steel container on stilts. Viewers walk up into the lightless volume, and can move around inside it. The artist has stated that it's about shades of grey. We wondered if the piece had a different meaning if vision was not a factor...

By Sandi Wassmer

photo shows a large black space reached from a ramp with spreads out across the foreground of the image

Miroslaw Balka, How It Is. Tate Modern, 2009/10. Installation view at Tate Modern, Turbine Hall © the artist Photo: Tate Photography

Miroslaw Balka's installation at Tate Modern has come with a certain amount of hype and, as I am registered blind, I was inexorably curious as to how I would experience it. I do have some useful vision, but absolutely zero night vision, so this was going to be interesting.

Although I am not in Miroslaw Balka’s brain and would not dream of guessing exactly what outcomes he wanted to achieve with this work, one statement about the premise of the piece really struck a chord with me, both literally and metaphorically:

“The unknown can be terrifying, especially if it is also without light.”

And, with that, in I went. I ascended the ramp into the dark. Apparently, it gradually gets darker until you are in absolute darkness, but it was completely black for me from the outset.

I expect that the light from outside the entrance prevented others from being immersed into total darkness, so was wondering how effective this was for sighted visitors, but for me, this light provided a point of reference so that I could always orientate myself.

This meant that there was a way out and, as such, no additional fear was instilled. In fact, I was at an advantage because of my white cane. This evoked a strange feeling of comfort and power at the same time.

photo shows a view out from a very dark space - people can be glimpsed as silhouttes in the foreground

Miroslaw Balka, How It Is. Tate Modern, 2009/10, interior view. © the artist Photo: Tate Photography

I thought about disability and the discrimination I have faced when people encounter the cane and I felt like wielding it in triumph in some sort of piratical Jack Sparrow fashion, but realised that I was going to be the only one getting the joke, so had the moment in my head instead and carried on.

I walked through with ease, mulled around for a few minutes and waited for something to happen, but instead all I experienced was bright flashes of light and white noise: people talking loudly, shouting, cameras flashing, phones going off, people texting and so on, Um. Yeah. Not quite what I expected.

All of the light and sound emanating from the other visitors completely negated any possibility of experiencing anything, as the suppression of not only visual, but also aural, stimulus is crucial in evoking the personal experience of fear and trepidation that evolves into a collective experience of hope, of having light through human connections even in the dark. Surely, everyone else got this? And, with that, I headed for the exit.

Standing outside of the installation, looking up at its vastness, I felt quite saddened and confused. Saddened at what I had just experienced said about this human race of ours and confused as to why on earth the people in there had come at all.

Maybe I have got it completely wrong and the artist did not want people to have the experience that I longed for.

Maybe he wanted to prove a point that, with the breakdown of our society we no longer have the ability to experience anything real that just relies on us.  Our senses and our ability to bond and communicate as one big collective human race. Or maybe it is just How It Is…


Go further:

Read more about How It Is on the Tate website [text] 

Details from Tate about BSL tour of How It Is on December 4 - followed by Tate BSL Christmas social [text]

Watch an interactive exploration of the piece on the Tate website [May not be accessible for all site users]


Businesswoman Sandi Wassmer registered blind a year ago. In her blog for Action for Blind People, she shares the 'shenanigans of visual impairment'.

Read Sandi's blog here