THERE was a zoo on the grounds of the camp. It was a small, simple structure, which housed local woodland animals. Foxes were trapped in cages downstairs; doves were confined to a coop in the roof. The zoo was intended to be a place of relaxation, specially constructed for the amusement of the staff and the children of the camp leader.
This camp was Treblinka death camp: a place where almost one million Jews were killed in a single year. The horror of what took place in this rural part of eastern Poland is somehow echoed in the perverse presence of the zoo, in this extension of the barbarity of the death camp.
The Treblinka zoo is the subject of a new work by renowned Polish artist Miroslaw Balka, which he has made for his mid-career retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. This site-specific sculpture, ZOO/T, is located in the corner of Imma's courtyard and is a skeletal, scaled-down reconstruction of the zoo.
According to Balka, ZOO/T bears a relation to the title of the exhibition, 'Tristes Tropiques', which derives from the 1955 text of the same name by French anthropologist Claude LeviStrauss. In this famous book, Levi-Strauss details his time spent among native tribes in Brazil. Coincidentally, Balka notes, when the Nazi commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl, was tracked down and arrested for war crimes, it was in Sao Paulo that he was found.
However, the link between LeviStrauss and Balka's exhibition is more complex than this: "This title is very much related to the part of the world where I grew up, because the Nazis, when they attacked the east part of Europe, they were just going into barbarians' [territory]; it was different from German troops going into France, where they got champagne and civilisation f When Claude Levi-Strauss describes his stories, it's always from the position of being higher f he was showing the life of these barbarians and I'm showing my life, being a barbarian from western civilisation's point of view."
The exhibition at Imma, which features some 26 works from the past two decades, includes many pieces that refer back to the Nazi occupation of Poland. Balka, a Catholic who was born in 1958, grew up in the town of Otwock, about 25km outside Warsaw.
Before WW2, 75% of the town's residents were Jews. "After the war three-quarters of the people living in the city were gone, " he recalls. "And when I was young I remember this fear in the air. My parents were teenagers at the time of the war so they were carrying the personal fear of it and, being born 13 years after the war had finished, I felt this shadow of the war, I really felt it in the surroundings."
Years later, the shadow of the war was to become a preoccupation in his artwork. "At a certain age I realised that there's a responsibility to deal with this subjectfthat I should tell about what happened, not in a didactic way, but just to sometimes whisper about the bad sides of the human being, because the war is just a frame, people are doing bad things, not the war itselffI felt that I should tell about some of the darker sides of history which maybe people would not like to hear any longer."
The power of Balka's works derives from their subtle, suggestive restraint, obliquely addressing the impossibility of comprehending the Final Solution. While at first glance they could be mistaken for minimalist installations due to their pared-down aesthetic, they are in fact rich in symbolism.
Indeed, his work integrates personal and collective memory, reflecting both on his own past and that of Poland's fractured history.
Balka's studio is based in Otwock, in the house that was once his grandmother's. The studio itself has become a source for his art, imbuing his works with a subjective, personal history. The materials he uses, such as wood, iron, stone and linoleum, are taken from the studio and the locality, and familiar household objects and furniture are reconfigured. "This is what people usually throw awayfI always choose materials which are weak in some way."
Central to his work is the evocation of the absent presence of the body, and the traces that people leave behind. Balka scales his works according to the dimensions of his own body and often the titles are simply these numerical measurements. He also considers the spaces around the objects to be as important as the objects themselves, giving his sculptures an austere theatricality that has been compared to Beckett.
Balka makes use of hair, soap, salt and ashes . . . materials that have strong links with the body and its functions. The ashes, taken from the fireplace in his studio, have obvious connotations with death. But, like soap, they also connect his work obliquely with the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Even maggots are used in one work: over the course of the exhibition they will transform into flies.
Balka's melancholy and quietly disturbing oeuvre invites the viewer to reflect upon the darker side of humanity. The first work to be seen on entering the exhibition encapsulates this approach.
Above the viewer's head, a video is playing on a loop. It comprises footage from Auschwitz filmed on a snowy winter's day. The camera simply zooms in on the letter "B" from the saying above the camp's entrance: "Arbeit macht frei" (work makes you free). However, as it viewed from inside the camp, the "B" is backwards. While Balka was filming the footage, a group of German youths, throwing snowballs and laughing, happened to arrive on the scene.
With its chance soundtrack of muffled laughter, the resulting video is a chilling meditation on the legacy of the past, the risk of forgetting, and the darkness within us.