Fire Place is an installation consisting of an overturned carpet on which rests a crude hearth-like structure made from bricks and concrete. Within the opening of the fireplace sits a single naked light bulb, which fills the void with heat and light from a tungsten filament. Pasted to the outer surface of the bricks are torn and layered newspaper clippings of recent obituaries that are collected by the artist at the time and place of the work’s exhibition. A hollow mound-like cement torso with round apertures at the neck and shoulders rests on the brick foundations, and a relatively naturalistic cement head sits unsupported and partially sunken into the neck-void. Plaster has been smoothed over the surface of some of the cement, lessening the coarse texture of the underlying material. The overturned carpet is stained with grease and dirt and on its left side are stock or inventory numbers stencilled in red ink, remnants of manufacture that would ordinarily be obscured. The carpet establishes a boundary to the installation, a domestic threshold that is reinforced by the carefully placed pair of cement shoes that sit at its edge.
This work was made in 1986 by the Polish artist Miroslaw Balka, when he was living and working in his studio and former childhood home in Otwock, Poland. The work is designed to be situated on the floor and without a barrier, yet due to the fragility of the constitutive elements it is generally exhibited on a low platform to allow people to circulate around the installation. A reproduction of Fire Place printed in the catalogue to a solo exhibition of Balka’s work held at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in 1993 shows a slightly different arrangement of the sculpture’s components: the fireplace is positioned off-centre on the carpet, and the left shoe is placed marginally further forward than the right, turning the edge of the carpet down on itself (reproduced in Van Abbemuseum 1993, p.64).
Much of Balka’s work is concerned with the environments that humans construct for themselves and the materials and objects to which we give meaning. He is best known for the austere formalism of his work in which he combines minimal and seemingly neutral forms with highly evocative raw materials, including found items. This can be seen in another of Balka’s works in Tate’s collection, Oasis (C.D.F.) 1989 (Tate T07499), in which the abstracted silhouette of a house is formed from wood that was found around Balka’s home and studio in Otwock. This is accompanied by wooden containers filled with leaves and pine needles that were also discovered in the area, and all of the installation’s elements retain the residue of their previous use, with traces of plaster, cement and paint visible on the surface of the wood.
Fire Place was made at a transitional point in Balka’s career in which the artist began to move away from figurative representation towards more symbolic practice. Since the early 1990s Balka’s sculptures have been non-figurative, comprised of unadorned materials and simple forms, although often incorporating personally significant items. In a 1993 interview the artist stated that his move to non-figurative installation was part of his attempt to achieve greater allusiveness in his work:
In my earlier works I employed the body in the very literal way … After some time I satisfied my hunger for the form of the human body. I took interest in the forms that accompany the body and in the traces the body leaves: a bed, a coffin, a funeral urn.
(Balka in Van Abbemuseum 1993, p.64.)
In this installation, the carpet and shoes suggest some personal, yet ambiguous, significance as traces of the physical body. Balka has said of such objects that ‘I choose them because they carry a history which I connect with when I touch them. It is like kissing the hand of history.’ (Quoted in Institute of Contemporary Arts and Serpentine Gallery 1990, p.16.)
Possible Worlds: Sculpture from Europe, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and Serpentine Gallery, London 1990.
Miroslaw Balka, exhibition catalogue, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 1993.
Helen Sainsbury (ed.), Miroslaw Balka: How It Is, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2009.
Supported by Christie’s.