480 x 10 x 10 is a sculpture made of used bars of soap strung on a steel cable hung vertically from the ceiling. The 473 cakes of soap of different dimensions, colours and fragrances are threaded sequentially, like beads on a string, to create a narrow column of soap measuring 480cm long and a maximum of 10cm wide, from which the work’s title is derived. The soaps are prevented from sliding off the end of the five-metre cable by a short loop and a steel bolt. Torsion in the cable causes the length of soaps to curve slightly upwards at the bottom end. The colour white predominates, interrupted by deep red, pink, yellow, turquoise, blue-greens and brown. The soaps are eroded to varying degrees – some are so thin, they have almost vanished, and others are virtually whole. Towards the bottom, a yellow Bart Simpson soap (a soap in the form of the fictional main character from the animated television series The Simpsons) can be discerned, although the most of the figure’s distinguishing characteristics have been washed away.
Balka made 480 x 10 x 10 in Osaka, Japan, for his exhibition Between Meals at the National Museum of Art (2000). It was originally part of a much longer string of soap that he cut into two parts. The other part became a shorter version of the work: 370 x 10 x 10 2000 (reproduced http://www.whitecube.com/artists/balka/
, accessed 30 October 2009). The soaps that went into these works were collected from members of the museum community in Osaka. Soaps sent in exclusively by women were used to created Hanging Soap Women 2000 (reproduced 17 x 23,5 x 1,6, pp.23–5), a 415cm string of similarly worn bars of soap hung between two nails on a wall.
Balka first used soap as a material in an installation he presented in the Polish Pavilion at the XLV Venice Biennale of 1993. From the floor to a level of 190cm, the walls of the pavilion’s entrance hall, including its vaulted recesses, and the long corridor leading to the main room were coated with a layer of soap. 190cm is the exact height of the artist and his use of this dimension in this instance is a common strategy in his work, both in the creation of sculptural forms or interventions and in the titles he confers. He has explained: ‘I don’t want to use literary titles as these only confuse things. Works exist through their dimensions, hence my titles. Very often the dimensions are those of my body, or close to the utmost abilities or inabilities of my body.’ (Quoted in Mirosław Bałka: Revisión 1986–1997, p.140.) The large amount of soap coating the walls of the Polish Pavilion in 1993 emitted a powerfully evocative smell; in a similar way, 480 x 10 x 10 emits an aroma familiar to everyone through the common experience of washing themselves. Balka relates the thinnest slivers of soap in 480 x 10 x 10 to the cells of our skin, which we shed daily (email correspondence with Tate sculpture conservators, 4 September 2003). Most people have daily contact with bars of soap, which gradually disappear, together with fragments of our skin and hair, into the channels of waste products. Soap is part of our most intimate of daily rituals, as once was ash, the remnants of a fire in the hearth or under a stove. Balka grew up in Otwock, a former health resort not far from Warsaw that became a Jewish ghetto in 1940; around 15,000 Jews were liquidated there and in the nearby death camp Treblinka in 1942 by the Nazi regime. For him, soap, like ash has a more sinister meaning. He has explained:
Using materials and forms to which serious concepts have accrued, such as ashes for instance, springs from very quotidian needs. Heating the house, for example. These humble actions become very significant at a certain point. Removed from its proper setting, ash from an ash-pan obtains a different meaning, takes on an abstract quality. A broader, historical perspective of interpretation can paradoxically narrow down the idea. In Catholic Poland, for instance, where there is only one operational crematorium, ashes are almost universally associated with incinerating bodies in concentration camps. Soap is automatically associated with making soap out of human fat in the camps. The normal, hygienic use of soap is less apparent.
(Quoted in Mirosław Bałka: Revisión 1986–1997, pp.142–3.)
Because of his pared-down aesthetic and his use of found or humble materials, Balka’s work of the 1990s has been associated with Arte Povera and Minimalism. He has repudiated these connections saying: ‘Even the most minimalistic pieces of mine have nothing to do with Minimal art. They always describe personal experiences.’ (Quoted in Mirosław Bałka: Revisión 1986–1997, p.149.) Speaking of his method of selecting the elements for his sculptural installations, he elaborated:
I choose them because they carry a history which I connect with when I touch them. It is like kissing the hand of history. My touch represents the contemporary ... For me the history of materials is more important than the history of art. I don’t make any connections with Arte Povera, but rather base my decisions on my own private experience. These are the materials I encounter in my studio, they constitute my personal landscape.
(Quoted in The Unthought Known, [p.19].)
Mirosław Bałka: Revisión 1986–1997, exhibition catalogue, IVAM Centre de Carme, Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, 1997.
The Unthought Known, exhibition catalogue, White Cube2, London 2002, reproduced p.3.
Miroslaw Balka: 17 x 23,5 x 1,6, exhibition catalogue, White Cube, London 2008.