image: Eliot Wyman
Robert Kusmirowski’s sinister installation feels more than just historical. William Wiles dug in
Bunker – Robert Kusmirowski’s large-scale recreation of a Second World War-era bunker in the Curve gallery of London’s Barbican Centre – is its ambiguity. It is not immediately obvious how the visitor is supposed to react. Put plainly, is this a good place or a bad place? Across town are the Cabinet War Rooms, Britain’s wartime nerve centre turned museum and patriotic shrine – a place signifying Churchillian fortitude, combined national effort, our finest hour and all that. But Hitler’s bunker is also deeply dug into the imagination – a place of vindictive fury, madness, nihilism and annihilation.
The source of the ambiguity is the fact that if you take away decorations like swastikas and union flags, bunkers look very alike. They’re utilitarian places, either through improvised necessity or a self-conscious display of austerity. Entering Kusmirowski’s Bunker, then, one looks attentively for details that might give some clue as to whether it’s a place where the guttering flame of freedom is being tended, or a tyrant’s lair.
Perhaps deliberately, the details are somewhat unhelpful. Kusmirowski’s Bunker is – it appears – an industrial space or mine, filled with decrepit equipment and machinery. Desks and shelves are scattered with torn and mangled books and papers – mostly in the artist’s native Polish, but there are a couple of British newspapers and, confusingly, some of Chamberlin, Powell & Bon’s technical drawings for the Barbican Centre itself (dated 1975). These uncertainties among the period details mean that the installation cannot be safely pigeonholed in a specific time and place. The effect is unsettling.
Kusmirowski has built an extremely atmospheric space, considerably aided by the eponymous shape of the Curve gallery. There is no straight line through the Bunker, and no direct line of sight from one part of it to another. The railway line that runs from one end to another curves off into darkness with no obvious light at the end of the tunnel. An orthogonal enfilade of rooms would never be able to create such a warren-like effect. Everything is appropriately begrimed, and dirt and debris scrunches underfoot. It’s as if the complex has been abandoned for years and only just re discovered. It’s a space that invites speculation about its story – what it was for, and how its end came about.
It’s sinister, and there’s a lot of it about. Miroslaw Balka, another Polish artist, opened his monumental installation How It Is in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall at about the same time that Bunker opened – a giant container filled with enveloping blackness, a void suggestive of the devouring fury of the Holocaust, a crime largely committed in Poland. Kusmirowski’s work has also looked to the Holocaust in the past, with his 2006 Berlin installation Wagon, which was modelled on a freight car used to transport people to Nazi Germany’s extermination camps. The rail tracks in Bunker are an uncomfortable reminder of infrastructural slaughter.
Bunker also brings to mind a previous Turbine Hall commission, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s TH.2058 – massed ranks of bunk beds, a near-future refugee camp to a soundtrack of ecological breakdown. Kusmirowski’s space has the same apocalyptic overtones, a reminder of the bunker scenes in the 1980s nuclear-attack drama Threads, in which council workers dutifully attend to the paperwork of armageddon without realising that they’re as dead as the civilian cinders on the surface. The texts accompanying the exhibit stress the artist’s nostalgia, even his “wistfulness”. But Bunker doesn’t feel like a memory, comfortably insulated in the past. It feels like a threat, a premonition, the shadow of things to come.
image: Eliot Wyman
Bunker is at the Curve gallery, Barbican Centre, London, until 10 January 2010