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Dark arts in Turbine Hall

Tate Modern's gloomy new installation reflects the spirit of the times, artist says

Once there was light, in the form of a fake sun beaming down at thousands of basking visitors at Tate Modern. Now, the gallery's vast Turbine Hall has been filled with darkness.

The latest sculpture to dominate the room is a windowless, 13 metre-high chamber, reminiscent of a giant shipping container, which visitors can access by ascending a ramp. Inside, the exhibit is nothing but 30 metres of dark matter – the further one progresses into the structure, the less is visible.

Vicente Todoli, the gallery's director, said the work might well "provoke a sense of fear". But, fortunately for those of a nervous disposition, there will be gallery attendants on hand with torches in case of slips, trips or panic attacks. An upper limit of 60 visitors at a time has been put into place to prevent people from falling over one another.

The Polish artist behind the work, Miroslaw Balka, 51, said he wanted to create the exact opposite of Olafur Eliasson's fake sun – one of the most popular sculptures to grace the Turbine Hall – by filling the space with darkness. Whether the public responds to his work with as much vigour remains to be seen. "I wanted this to be in opposition to Eliasson's project. I wanted to make something that will give you different emotions, which is more about limits than possibilities," he said of his sculpture, entitled How It Is.

For the past decade, the Turbine Hall's annual Unilever series of commissions has hosted everything from Eliasson's artificial sunbeams in 2003 to a series of helter-skelter slides by the German artist Carsten Höller in 2006. However, in the past three years the themes of the exhibits have become steadily darker: Doris Salcedo, the Colombian artist, created a giant crack in the ground in 2007, and a shelter complete with steel bunk beds anticipating an end-of-the-world disaster was exhibited last year by the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

Mr Todoli admitted the recent Turbine Hall commissions had been "apocalyptic" in nature, but said this had not been purposeful on the part of the gallery. He said: "It's a coincidence that the last three commissions have been more on the dark than the light side....[but] artists perhaps speak of the times." Balka added: "The 21st century is not as happy as we could have supposed."

Although the gallery drew excited comparisons between Balka's artwork and black holes, Plato's cave and the biblical plague of darkness, the artist himself has yet to reveal the meaning or inspiration behind the piece. He said the idea came to him about a year ago, and that the title had been taken directly from a Samuel Beckett novel in which the narrator crawls through endless mud as a kind of purgatory. The structure took Balka one month to erect inside the gallery.

His previous work has dwelt on the Holocaust and its impact on his Polish hometown, which was largely inhabited by Jews before the Second World War, when the vast majority of them were taken to concentration camps.

Helen Sainsbury, a curator at the museum, said his work was preoccupied with the "history of his own country and knowledge about the Jewish community and the Holocaust".

Balka, who was raised as a Catholic, has previously spoken about his work "being haunted by the destruction of the country's Jewish population". He has exhibited widely and held shows in British galleries including the Tate.

His works relating to the Holocaust include an installation depicting a pair of blue eyes created from gas burners. In 1985, he produced a sculpture entitled Remembrance of the First Holy Communion, in which visitors could interact with the boy's communion by placing a pin in his pin-cushion heart.

A year later, he built a fireplace with obituary notes stuck to its bricks. He has also created installations comprising entire rooms: one had the smell of soap contained within its walls to evoke childhood memories; others were shaped like biblical crosses with fans where stigmatas would traditionally be placed.

Turbine Hall: Previous occupants

Louise Bourgeois: I Do, I Undo, I Redo (12 May 2000)

The work consisted of three steel towers, each around 30ft high, which dominated the far, east end of the hall. A spiral staircase on one tower allowed visitors to climb to a raised platform for "encounters with strangers and friends".

Juan Muñoz: Double bind (2 June 2001)

The installation was divided into two parts: on the upper level visitors saw a patterned floor through which two elevators rose and descended, as if in perpetual motion. It was apparent that the shafts above were dotted with a cast of sculpted figures.

Anish Kapoor: Marsyas (9 October 2002)

A long, sensuously curving, deep-red sculpture that stretched the full length of the hall and right up to the ceiling comprising three steel rings joined by PVC membrane, which Kapoor described as being "like a flayed skin".

Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project (16 October 2003)

Arguably the most memorable installation, Eliasson transformed the hall with a fine mist of cloud-like formations. The ceiling was a mirror. At the far end hung a large circular form made up of hundreds of orange bulbs. It could have been the sun.

Bruce Nauman: Raw Materials (12 October 2004)

Nauman's "sound sculpture" consisted of 22 audio recordings, ranging from repetitions of words such as "think" and "thank you" to texts that were sung and background "white noise". Voices were sinister or tender and melancholic.

Rachel Whiteread: Embankment (11 October 2005)

The former Turner Prize winner created a structure made of 14,000 casts of cardboard boxes. The box theme had associations with storing intimate personal items, evoking the mystery surrounding what a sealed box might contain.

Carsten Höller: Test Site (10 October 2006)

This installation, described by the artist as a "playground for the body and the brain", comprised five slides. It encompassed the outer spectacle of watching people enjoying themselves and the inner, emotional experience of the participants.

Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth (9 October 2007)

The Colombian artist created a giant crack that ran the full length of the Turbine Hall which "raised questions about the historic and current divisions in society". In spite of hostile reviews, it proved popular with the public.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster: th.2058 (14 October 2008)

A dystopic future as Londoners take shelter in the Turbine Hall from endless rain, the artist filled the space with 200 bunk beds, gargantuan animal sculptures and a massive screen playing science fiction films.