“A portable climate.” That’s what Ralph Waldo Emerson called coal. “Every basket is power and civilization,” he wrote in 1860. Coal is not only a portable climate but “it is the means of transporting itself whithersoever it is wanted,” Emerson added, noting “a half-ounce of coal will draw two tons a mile, and coal carries coal, by rail and by boat, to make Canada as warm as Calcutta.”
Writing 100 years later, Thomas McGrath contrasts coal fire to wood fire in his poem “A Coal Fire in Winter.” With a coal fire, there is “[s]omething old and tyrannical burning there.” This is “heat / From the time before there was fire.” Coal, compressed plant matter accumulated over 100,000 years, is the legacy of a “sunken kingdom” and its flames are “carbon serpents of bituminous gardens.”
Coal—as fuel, as fossil, as material, as metaphor, as “black gold,” as historical force—is the starting point of Manifesta 9, situated in the main building of the former Waterschei mining facility in Genk, Belgium.
In 1901, coal was discovered in Genk and transformed the countryside into a vast industrial complex that drew workers from all over the world. Writing in the catalogue, architect Peter Bongaerts characterized the region’s garden homes, schools, hospitals, railways, canals, and forests as “one gigantic mining machine, with production and profit the ultimate goal.”
This year’s Manifesta, curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina with associate curators Katerina Gregos and Dawn Ades and entitled The Deep of the Modern, has three aims: to connect with the local history of mining; to provide an art historical examination of the effects of the coal industry on art since the nineteenth century; and to provide an opportunity for contemporary artists to address the legacy of industrialization as well as the effects of post-industrial practices.
Corresponding to these aims, The Deep of the Modern consists of three distinct sections. On the ground floor of the facility, the heritage section addresses Belgium’s mining legacy, including models of underground tunnels used to train miners, embroidered mottos on linens that belonged to mining families, and miners’ heads sculpted from coal and potato pulp by the self-taught artist and miner Manuel Durán. A screening of 14 mining films from CINEMATEK, The Royal Belgian Film Archive, surveys representations of the mining industry, from the 1911 silent film The Great Mine Disaster and news reels to training films, 1960s ads promoting coal heat, and documentaries on immigrant workers and mine closures. One recruiting film closes with a miner leaving work, hopping onto a newly purchased motorcycle, and riding off with a young woman perched on back.
The section The Age of Coal, curated by Dawn Ades, presents an art historical survey of the material and aesthetic impact of the coal industry on art production. This section is the most extensive, with well over 100 works (in contrast to fewer than 50 in the contemporary art section.) Intriguing photographs include Olivier Bevierre’s 1892 photomontage of miners in makeshift “training galleries” built at the foot of a slag-heap; Bill Brandt’s 1930 image of the poor scavenging coal near Haworth; Bernd and Hilla Becher’s 1988 photo of an abandoned mine elevator in Genk; and Igor Grubić’s 2006 Angels with Dirty Faces, portraits of miners posed in front of wings chalked on a picket fence.
One of my favorite moments in The Age of Coal begins with 1200 coal sacks hanging from the ceiling in Ades’ re-creation of Duchamp’s contribution to a 1938 surrealist installation. Having peered many times at photographs of Duchamp’s installation, I loved the opportunity to get an idea of the experience of walking under Duchamp’s sack-ceiling. I had imagined the experience to be claustrophobic, the coal sacks heavy and menacing, but the sacks, stuffed with newspapers as in the original installation, created a cushiony ceiling with the strong earthy smell of burlap. Adjacent to Duchamp’s 1200 coal sacks is Christian Boltanski’s wall of rusted biscuit tins with the names and registration numbers of more than 3000 miners of the former Grand Hornu coal mine. A former miner I spoke with pointed out that the wall along which Les régistres du Grand-Hornu (1997) is installed is the same wall which once held the Waterschei miners’ lockers. (The sheer number of biscuit tins echoes the 7000 booklets on display in 17 Tons; these are the equivalent of work-permits, issued to children as well as adults from 1845 to 1920, and represent the enormous number of workers employed in Belgium’s “mining machine.”) Directly across from Boltanski’s piece, Richard Long’s 26-meter path Bolivian Coal Line (1992) stretches along a light-filled open space which once heldthe main stairs leading down into the mines. In contrast to the thousands of Bolivian coal pieces, there is—near Duchamp’s coal sacks—one tiny piece of coal carved into a miniature Victorian shoe, from the collection of a mining museum in England. There are wonderful moments like this when the histories of art practice, materials, and mining converge.
The biennale’s top two floors feature contemporary art projects that variously reflect on practices of production and consumption. A significant number of works engage research conducted by the artists themselves, some projects foregrounding such research and others using research to jumpstart the creative process. Curated by Katerina Gregos, Poetics of Restructuring encompasses, as Gregos put it at the press conference, both “poetic gestures and documentary practices.”
Works by Edward Burtynsky and Haifeng Ni provide an example of that contrast. Burtynsky’s series China, Manufacturing (2005) documents the factories and workers’ dormitories in the southern province of Guangdong where young people flock for work. One is struck by the incredible scale of production, viewing what must be a thousand workers assembling electronic equipment or packaging chicken. The scale of production is also evoked in Haifeng Ni’s Para-Production (2008-2012), one of the most visible works at Manifesta because of its location in the central hall. Haifeng Ni’s quilt, made of “shreds” from Chinese textile factories, cascades from the upper mezzanine and spreads onto the ground floor, a monstrous dark textile that evokes slag heaps. In contrast to the documentary modesty of Burtynsky’s photographs, Haifeng Ni’s gesture is theatrical—a sweeping non-productive gesture borne of the scraps of the textile industry.
The relationship of industrial production to cultural production is emphasized by works that use industrial materials for art. Rossella Biscotti’s Title One: The Tasks of the Community (2012) is a configuration of floor-bound plates, made of lead that the artist bought at auction following the closing of a Lithuanian nuclear plant. The work deliberately echoes Carl Andre’s use of modular units and industrial materials but Biscotti’s lead “path” also resonates with Long’s Bolivian Coal Line. In turn, Long’s piece shares an interest in the use of coal as material with Marcel Broodthaers’s Trois tas de charbon (1966-67), three coal piles with a small Belgian flag, as well as Bernar Venet’s 1963 Tas de charbon, a very early example of heaped material presented as art. These coal heaps from the 1960s in turn anticipate the heap of Maarten Vanden Eynde’s Plastic Reef (2008-2012), created by melting plastic refuse gathered from the ocean’s floating landfills.
José Antonio Vega Macotela’s Study of Exhaustion – The Equivalent of Silver (2011) is an evocative use of material, a tiny silver ball the size and shape of a wad of coca leaves chewed by a Bolivian silver miner during the course of his shift. The analgesic effects of coca leaves enable a miner to work longer hours with fewer breaks. The tiny bit of silver is placed in a jeweler’s display case, but the silver, instead of being fashioned into a decorative object, simply and indexically represents the residue of a day’s worth of physical exertion.
On the top floor, near where the Waterschei miners entered the elevator that would drop them 700 meters, a neon sign in Cyrillic reproduces the sign of a cultural center in the abandoned city of Pripyat, home to workers at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The sign means “The House of Energetic Culture” and is the contribution of artist collective Claire Fontaine. With its nod to Soviet idealism, the neon strikes a chord with Magdalena Jitrik’s installation Revolutionary Life (2012), a work that evokes the idealism of the Russian avant-garde with a series of abstract paintings. Suspended from the ceiling, Jitrik’s abstract appropriations appear to float in the cavernous industrial ruin, large canvases moving back to progressively smaller canvases as if to evoke our distance from the past. The paintings are displayed in conjunction with imagined book covers for the works of Victor Serge (1880-1947).
Nicoline van Harskamp’s video Yours in Solidarity (2009-12) appears to document a meeting of political activists. With neither beginning nor end, the meeting is a continuous argument over activism that never reaches consensus, not only because of ideological differences but also due to clashing personalities. I didn’t realize until after watching the video that the script was based on the archived correspondence of Dutch anarchist Karl Max Kreuger (1946-1999). Yours in Solidarity imagines Kreuger’s fellow anarchists meeting today, reflecting on the utopian ideal of “solidarity” as sorely tested by the chafing of ideology and personality.
Ana Torfs’s research into the relationship between synthetic color and industry is quite interesting. Her installation […]STAIN[…] (2012) presents the commercial uses of twenty synthetic dyes originally derived from coal tar. We learn that fuschia is a dye in Bayer aspirin and arsenic poisoning, Methylene blue is used for toilet bowl cleaner, and Malachite green is important to forensic science. As fascinating as I find the artist’s research into synthetic color—we owe the color mauve to the coal industry!— the work itself, with dyed feathers and tiny, difficult-to-read illustrations prosaically arranged on display tables, looks more like a science fair project than an “installation.” [Ed. Note: If that strikes your fancy, though, does a very good job of telling the story of aniline dyes. -WB]
Many works strike me as predictable or pedantic in their approach to labor and industry. Too many artists rely on what is by now the well-worn strategy of repetition to evoke redundant productivity. For example, Oswaldo Maciá’s Martinet (2011-2012) is installed in a gangway along which viewers hear the monotonous pounding of hammers and sniff the artist’s “olfactory composition,” described by Gregos as “the manufactured scent of failure.” (It smells like a mix of musk and engine oil.) Ante Timmermans’ Make a Molehill out of a Mountain (of Work) (2012) is an installation / performance in an office-like space with stacks of A4 paper the artist perforates, creating “a molehill of confetti” that the catalogue claims mirrors the “accumulation of coal waste in the shape of a mountain.”
The most interesting work in the show uses artistic research as a springboard, engaging documentary practice, but also testing and reimagining it. Mikhail Karikis and Uriel Orlow’s seven-minute video Sounds from Beneath (2010-11) features a miners’ choir performing on the top of a Dover slag heap. The starting point for Karikis’s “sound sculpture” was the artist’s research into mining technology and interviews with the former miners of the Snowdon Colliery Welfare Male Voice Choir. The final sound composition consists of the miners mimicking the mechanical sounds of the pits, the noise of drills, grinders, shovels, water sprays, and elevators. Orlow’s camerawork alternates between long takes of the group, standing amid water puddles in a coalfield, and close-ups of the men’s faces, the whiteness of windswept hair and the pink of cheeks the only brightness amid gray. There is a marked contrast between what we see and what we hear, between the bleakness of the landscape and the richness of the men’s voices. The mining industry is preoccupied with production, of course, but the miners’ vocal imitation of “production” both commemorates that industry and resists its dehumanization.
Lina Selander’s installation Lenin’s Lamp Glows in the Peasant’s Hut (2011) is a striking meditation on technology and the documentary impulse. The viewer first sees a vitrine with 22 images of what look to be no more than dark smudges on paper. The ghostly images are made by placing uranium rocks on photographic paper; the uranium’s radioactivity reacts to the silver in the paper, and each rock “photographs” itself. In an adjoining space, a video juxtaposes footage documenting the Chernobyl tragedy, scenes from Dziga Vertov’s The Eleventh Year (a 1928 film documenting the construction of power plants in the Soviet Union), and footage taken by the artist herself on visits to Pripyat and the Chernobyl Museum. On one level, the installation is about the 1986 Chernobyl disaster as emblematic of the failures of industrial progress. The installation’s title, Lenin’s Lamp Glows in the Peasant’s Hut, alludes to Lenin’s promise that communism will provide electricity in every corner of the Soviet state. On another level, the installation explores the politics and aesthetics of “editing” the past. A stainless steel wall plaque lists the sources used in the artist’s 23-minute video, but the sources, etched on the plate, are difficult to read because the reflective surface ripples with images from the video. Selander’s installation evocatively plays with the acts of recording and editing, and the elusive materiality of “documentation.”
The main building of the Waterschei mining facility is a once-stately edifice through which 4,000 – 5,000 workers passed each day during its peak years. (This incredible number was told to me by a former Waterschei miner.) Most of the building is gutted, but the central stairs, with their wrought iron Art Nouveau railing, give a sense of the building’s original charm. While it’s quite common these days to hold exhibitions in vacant industrial sites, this site is not entirely abandoned; in a corner of the otherwise empty facility, former miners maintain a small museum and bar. Het Mijndepot – The Mine Depot – includes mining equipment and historical photographs. I was intrigued by its collection of holy cards commemorating St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners. [Cards from the collection can be seen here.] The cards picture the miner as romantic hero, and the slag-landscape as picturesque. The cards, with their sentimentalizing of coal workers, provide an interesting context to Broodthaers’ use of coal in works that poke fun at Belgian identity, several of which are included in Manifesta 9.
Overall, Medina’s ambitious attempt to actively engage the local context is impressive. The contemporary art section, curated by Gregos, is predictable in its privileging of politics over aesthetics, but the art historical section, curated by Ades, is rich and generates surprising affinities among art works and historical objects. And the presence of former miners, hanging out at Het Mijndepot but easy to coax out of their corner to answer questions about the building, provides a wonderful addition to Manifesta’s cadre of enthusiastic “art mediators.”