how it is

I came to see it for the second time today: How It Is by Miroslaw Balka at the Tate Modern. If you haven’t seen it, you haven’t lived. Or at least, you’ve lived but you haven’t had the chance to really understand it.

It’s – and I’m going to try explain what it is in a way that hopefully won’t put you off seeing it, and with as little hyperbole as possible – the single most interesting work of art, literature and demonstrative political philosophy I have seen in a long time.

Except ‘seen’ isn’t quite the right word. I mean, you see it from the outside (it’s a terrifyingly huge steel box that basically fills one end of the Turbine Hall); but when you go into it, it is complete blackness. You can’t see anything. You stumble around, not quite knowing what you’re doing, trying to work out if you’re about to walk into something or someone. Eventually you reach the back wall and you turn around, and you can see the light and the windows at the other end where you came in, and the silhouettes of people who are a little further back than you, themselves stumbling cautiously around trying to find their way.

Your eyes become accustomed to the dark and you can watch them: couples clinging to each other; children either panicking or enjoying the chaos; young men trying to prove their bravery by marching off away from their friends (only to slow right down and hold their hands out disorientatedly as soon as they are away from the pack); french girls reaching the back wall, shrugging nonchalently and saying, ‘ah, c’est le mur…’ as if it really means something…

Every person’s experience is different, everyone interprets that experience differently, the darkness is liberating and the freedom is oppressive, and you never quite know what’s going on until it’s pretty much time to leave. It is how it is.

But the amazing thing is that it reveals how incredibly blinkered many of us are to the obvious difficulties of sharing a space we don’t understand with others we struggle to acknowledge. At one point, as I sat in the corner, a woman tripped over me.

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I didn’t see you there.”

Well, duh.