Things are getting worse and worse and worse! Those words, once uttered, with the most resounding lugubriousness, by the great poet and translator Michael Hamburger, ring in my ears as I approach Miroslaw Balka's giant black, ship's container-like installation at the back end of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. (You can't even really see it as you walk down the ramp from the entrance.) Its title is How It Is, which is, of course, a straight steal from Samuel Beckett, who wrote a novel of that same name in which the hero (hero?!) crawls through mud everlastingly.
The sheer terrible sobriety of this object puts one in mind, immediately, of other deeply pessimistic works by Balka; that strange, top-to-toe shrouded, ghost-like human figure – a kind of nasty dream of a Klu Klux Klansman – at an exhibition in Maastricht, for example, some years ago. That one weighed on the conscience for a while. Well, Balka is Polish, after all, and he bears the weight of Poland's misery on his shoulders, even if he wasn't born when it all happened. Misery is passed on from man to man, deepening like a coastal shelf, in the words of another terrible miserabilist, the poet Philip Larkin.
This time the block of misery is made of pure Corus steel – the very stuff that that pygmy master of gigantism, Richard Serra, habitually uses for his oversized sculptures – great sheets of it, pinioned by girders, soaring up to the sky(lights) in a single, giant rectangle. It looks black, black, black, and all that word has ever signified of loneliness, entrapment, set-apartness, inner gloom, the irreversible end of things, the devil himself. In short: good night, sweet friends.
But the outside of this container to surpass all other containers in heft and brute presence is only the beginning. When we reach the far end, having passed along one of its sheerly soaring bleak sides – you can even walk right underneath it, from end to end, if you so wish because it is hoisted up off the ground to a little more than a man's height – the real adventure begins. Swivel back on yourself and you face a long, black ramp (the second ramp in this place, as you may have noticed, just as this is the second container, for is not the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall itself a container? That's a clever play in itself).
Up the ramp – slowly does it – and you face a blacker than black interior. It looks like a thick, black and almost treacly open space – pure marmite, you might say – that goes everywhere and nowhere, yawningly inviting. You inch along, moving ever forward, infinitely tentatively. Some brash ones – generally men – are striding ahead. As you go, you are wondering whether you will collide with something or someone. Yourself perhaps. Running back. Shrieking. Hairless.
But then, little by little, the blackness begins to thin (it is as if some water has been added in order to dilute it) as your eyes become accustomed to an absence of light. When you finally reach the other end, you bounce – boing! – off a shaved- velvety-feeling wall, and then you turn back to look – towards the open end, the ramp end, with the people approaching, raggedly. These forms are wholly three-dimensional until they begin to penetrate the space. And then, little by little, they diminish into two-dimensional silhouettes of themselves.
And it is at this point that you feel a slight disappointment. Yes, admit it to yourself: you had quite wanted all that blackness, all that sensory deprivation. You had almost wanted to embrace the fact that there would be nothing but you and the Void, just the two of you together, to test your wits and your courage against it. And now, having turned back to look, there is just a bit too much light, and the misery is oozing away, and you are not beginning to reflect upon the terrible morbidity of the human condition after all, and one or two people are even chatting about the fact that there is never any such thing as black, not really, there is only ever shades of grey. You even think about asking for your money back, then you remember that it was free, so you make a donation, slightly guiltily.