Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Tuesday, 13 October 2009 12:18 UK

Tate Modern unveils heart of darkness

How It Is sculpture

By Tim Masters
Entertainment and arts correspondent, BBC News

It is like staring into the depths of a black hole.

Polish artist Miroslaw Balka's How It Is is the latest artistic commission to fill the massive Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern.

How It Is sculpture
The blackness of the interior contrasts with the day-lit Turbine Hall

He has created a steel sculpture, like a giant shipping container, that visitors can walk inside, as well as underneath and around.

The pitch-dark chamber, which is 30m long, 13m high, and 10m wide, can be entered via a ramp.

"It's everything and nothing in a way," says creator Balka, who is appropriately dressed in black.

"When I decided to make the sculpture I really did not know what the sculpture was about," he admits.

A visitor standing at the bottom of the ramp sees only a rectangle of darkness that appears solid.

But this is a darkness that people can walk into, creating what the curators describe as a "both personal and collective" experience.

Once inside, the senses are sharpened. There is the echo of footsteps, and the soft velvety feel of the walls.

Torch patrol

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Some of the first people to enter the "black hole" give their thoughts

Balka's How It Is is the 10th annual commission in Tate's Unilever Series.

Previous installations in the series have included a giant crack stretching the length of hall, by Doris Salcedo, and a series of giant slides by the Belgian-born artist Carsten Holler.

Miroslaw Balka
This is Balka's first public commission in the UK

Exhibition organisers at the Tate say attendants with torches will patrol the sculpture in case visitors start to panic in the dark space.

Balka, who was born in Warsaw in 1958, says the title of the work is inspired by Samuel Beckett's novel How It Is - which he came across in a book shop.

His previous works have included corridors that visitors can walk through, as well as an artwork made out of used bars of soap.

Asked about the recent run of gloomy themes among the Unilever commissions, Balka responded: "The 21st century - it's not so happy as we could suppose, so that's how it is."

The installation can be seen by the public from 13 October to 5 April 2010.

ROUND-UP OF REVIEWS

The Telegraph's Richard Dorment says the commission "actually scared the wits out of me":

Your first sight of the vast steel container fills you with apprehension because you see its gigantic hulk from rear. The walk from the main entrance of the Turbine Hall to the place where you first encounter Balka's sculpture is as long and as drawn-out as possible. It's not until you are almost on top of it that you grasp how ugly, brooding, and threatening it is.

The Independent's Michael Glover says the blackness begins to thin "as your eyes become accustomed to an absence of light":

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.

The Guardian's Adrian Searle rates How It Is as one of the best Turbine Hall works:

How It Is joins Juan Munoz's 2001 Double Bind, Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth and Bruce Nauman's sea of voices, Raw Materials, as the most successful of the Turbine Hall commissions. They are the best because they return you to your own resources as a spectator: they seek less to entertain than to give you pause. All are invitations to the imagination, returning us to our own thoughts.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, of the Times, gives How It Is five stars out of five:

The experience is sombre, discombobulating and perhaps a bit sinister. But it is beautiful too — and not least when, as your eyes slowly adjust, you begin to discern the infinite subtle shades of grey or turn back to face the entrance and see other visitors vacillating nervously on the brink before, stepping into the engulfing shadows, they are transformed into stalking silhouettes.


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