Michael Glover: A journey into the terror of sensory deprivation – nearly

The sheer terrible sobriety puts one in mind of Balka's other pessimistic works

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones