Into the shadows

A refreshingly earnest look at Europe's dark past

Miroslaw Balka: Topography
Modern Art Oxford

It is, in case you didn't know it, Polska! Year, an official campaign aiming to introduce Polish culture to the British public. One of the highlights is "Topography" by the artist Miroslaw Balka, who is also the creator of Tate Modern's current Turbine Hall exhibit: a black box that is luring crowds into its dark centre. How we remember and how we choose to forget are his subjects. "Every day," he says, "I walk in the paths of the past." The grandson of a gravestone carver, Balka claims: "Contemporary time does not exist. We cannot catch the continuous."

In the flickering, black-and-white shadows of his videos, projected on to the gallery walls at Modern Art Oxford, images return, again and again, like troubling dreams. Born in 1958, the shadow of the Holocaust haunts Balka's work. On the far wall of the gallery, there is a projection of a frozen pond surrounded by trees in a snowy landscape. The uncanny stillness and apparent silence tap into the romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich and those half-remembered illustrations from childhood fairy tales. It is a genuine shock, then, to learn that this idyll is the site of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Suddenly, we are forced to ask what this place has witnessed, what it remembers or keeps veiled behind this neutralising blanket of snow. In Bambi (2003), young deer forage in the snow looking for food. They leap over the ribbons of rusting barbed wire that encircle the ghostly vestiges of the camp's prison compound. The title implies the danger of Disney-fying history, of turning away from the truth by making such places into "Holocaust theme parks".

In recent works, such as Flagellare A, B and C (2009), Balka offers a more physical, less literal expression of both ritual and violence, drawing parallels between the two. Videos inserted in the floor show the shadow of a leather belt whipping the gallery floor, which seems to have transformed into a canvas of skin. The repeated swish suggests not only brutal torture but also Christian flagellation, with its motifs of guilt, redemption and reparation. There is something painterly about the way the soft, blue-and-yellow light flits across the surface.

It is no coincidence that, within classical religious art, light implies the spiritual and the divine. These are complex, multilayered works. Sound accompanies a number of the videos: the burr of a truck driver's foot on an accelerator accompanied by a Polish lullaby or a clockwork wind-up toy shuffling around the studio. These desensitise and disorientate.

Talking with Balka, I suggest that in Polish contemporary art such soul-searching is much less common than among postwar German artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys or Georg Baselitz. He tells me that, being younger, he has had to educate himself about the Holocaust and that, having done so, he now has a responsibility to communicate this knowledge through his art. It is an idealistic and refreshingly uncynical view. "We are," he says, "so close to the erasure of the subject that, by making such work, maybe there can continue to be an honest dialogue."

Until 7 March.

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power

Show Hide image

The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis