Carrousel 2004 consists of four video projections topped by small sculptural elements resembling roofs, which are attached to the walls above them. In the lower corner of one of the projections, a plywood cut-out of the logo of the Arabic-language news station Al Jazeera is attached to the wall. The filmed element of the work consists of four projections of the same looped video, sequenced so that the images are slightly out of sync with each other. The soundtrack is simply the ambient sounds of crows in the landscape and the air rushing by as the camera turns. The work should be installed as a single room installation. The sculptural elements determine the size of the projections, but the room size and arrangement of the work within it can be reconfigured.
The video was shot by Balka on one of his earliest visits to the concentration camp of Majdanek, near Lublin, in his native Poland in the winter of 1999. Standing between the now deserted barracks of the camp, he held the camera out at arm’s length and spun himself around on the spot. The resulting footage is blurred and colour is all but absent in the bleak winter landscape. Carrousel is one of a number of video works that Balka has made about the legacies of the Holocaust.
For Balka, the function of a work of art is to keep memories alive. In an age of information saturation he believes everything is erased too fast, and any news is old news by the time we hear it. By looping the footage in Carrousel and surrounding the viewer with the projections, he alludes to the circularity of history, where there is no beginning and no end. The viewer is both physically and psychologically disorientated by the shifting images. The title Carrousel reinforces this sensation, but also alludes to Balka’s personal fear of the eponymous fairground ride. Despite the horror inspired by the imagery, the roof elements are designed to shelter the projections below, thus protecting the memory of these passages from history. The simple steel roofs are filled with white foam rubber to echo the winter landscape and to represent purification.
Balka has explained that at the time he was making the work, there was no English language version of the news channel Al Jazeera like there is now. For most western television viewers, the only time they saw footage from the network (in the form of excerpts on the main news channels) was when it was used as a conduit for bad news about the execution of hostages in Iraq or other human tragedies. The advent of the English language version has to some degree transformed public perception of the network in the West, and, with it, public understanding and engagement with the issues on which it reports. Balka makes an analogy with the understanding of history, and draws attention to how access to news may influence the fate of those caught up in world events.
The work was first shown in Balka’s monographic exhibition Bon Voyage at the Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain, Strasbourg in 2005. The titles of Balka’s works are spelt in the language of the country in which they were first exhibited, hence why Carrousel is spelt in French. The work originally included an additional sculptural element in the centre of the room but Balka later decided to install the work without this element in Topography, his 2009 exhibition of video-based works at Modern Art Oxford. The artist has explained that he felt in the end that the viewer was the final sculptural element needed to complete the work.
Emmanuel Guigon, Bon voyage, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain, Strasbourg 2005.
Suzanne Cotter and James E. Young, Miroslaw Balka: Topography, exhibition catalogue, Modern Art Oxford 2009.
Helen Sainsbury, Zygmunt Bauman, Paulo Herkenhoff, Julian Heynen, Làszló Krasznahorkai, Miroslaw Balka: How It Is, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2009.