Working in a coal mine: A European biennial gets dirty...
Manifesta 9 occupied a defunct mine in Belgium this summer, and got to places that many international art shows fail to reach.
Claire Fontaine, The House of Energetic Culture, 2012. Courtesy Air de Paris, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris. Commissioned by Manifesta 9 © the artist
‘No, don't actually do it, you don't need to actually do anything. No, ok. We don't need that, really. Yes, ok.'
So reads a sheet of paper hanging from the cavernous upper roof of Waterschei, an industrial cathedral just outside Genk in Limburg. The paper is rendered like a marble slab, and is one of many bearing suggestive texts seemingly hinged on work, somehow.
They're part of Ben Cain's site-specific piece Work in the Dark, along with 3-D geometric shapes, also in ‘marble', and a pulley that doesn't do anything other than go round on itself.
They whole installation is beautiful and absurd, and looks particularly good on the top floor of this stark, decrepit monolith, flooded with light.
Ben Cain, Work in the Dark, 2012. Commissioned by Manifesta 9 © the artist
Cain has taken on some of the meaning from this place - what was once the administrative and symbolic heart of a thriving mine complex. Built in 1924, designed by André Dumont, it is a splendid Art Deco structure and one of only three buildings that were saved from demolition when the entire mine ceased production in 1987.
The site was once considerably larger and its slag heaps off in the distance are like alien hills in the flat landscape now overtaken by nature.
The shaft tower at Waterschei, also saved from demolition. Photo: Kristof Vrancken
Ben Cain's work has been brought here by Manifesta, a roaming European biennial that only sets down in places at the cultural periphery, leaving big shows like Documenta and Basel to museum-rich cities. Its remit is to engage with local socio-politics, which it has done from Rotterdam to Ljubljana over the years, and it seems to have taken that to a new extreme here in Limburg.
In the biennial's eco-designed restaurant, head curator of Manifesta 9 Cuauhtémoc Medina, says he was immediately struck by the ‘crystal' clarity of this region's mining history. Unlike the layered British or even his native Mexican industrial past, mining in Limburg was short-lived. It exploded in the early-20th century, in sparsely populated agricultural land, and ended abruptly 70 years later.
Limburg once symbolised the strength, and future, of Europe built on steel and coal - it boasts the world's largest concentration of garden cities created for the workforce. Now, it's a little desolate. The onset of mine closures here was designated ‘the path of death'.
Waterschei Garden City. Photo: Kristof Vrancken
After visiting in person two years ago, Medina knew that Waterschei topped the handful of proposals to host the biennial (local government applies for and must part fund the event).
‘The energy of memory - not only in the spaces, but more in the organisations, is really quite amazing,' he explains. My hotel was called Carbon, but more telling is that Manifesta shares this building with a mining museum (the Mijndepot) independently run by former miners - in fact, they were officially squatters when they first set it up. In a nearby town, another such museum has been distributing a magazine for 19 years, subsidised solely by subscriptions.
Would this community feel positive about an art biennial coming into such a loaded building? ‘Not at the beginning, not universally,' he says. Medina fought to allow the Mijndepot to stay, navigating the more utopian dreams of local politicians and developers - Waterschei is down to become a business and science centre next, called Thor Park. ‘This significant gap between those potentials really caught me when I came, in a very romantic way,' says Medina.
A view of Waterschei. Photo: Kristof Vrancken
He's managed to marry the two. The increased visibility the museum has enjoyed this summer means it will now stay for good. You can enjoy a Miner beer at its bar, browse machinery, lockers, antiquated safety notices and uniforms hanging from the ceiling. But the Mijndepot is not the only special thing here.
Normally events of this type are as sprawling as they can manage, but Manifesta 9, which kept itself to the one building, was a united, if vast, thematic exhibition - about coal (and all its accompanying cultural and aesthetic baggage) - and to get to grips with its theme, featured historic as well as contemporary art - a first for the biennial and unusual for most. It was ‘devilish' hard getting the loans, says Medina.
The whole thing is evocatively titled 'The Deep of the Modern'. But could a show about compressed carbon, spanning 24,000 square-metres hold together? Would one want to throw oneself from the top of a crumbling mine shaft after innumerable ruminations on labour and class theory? In fact, as Cain's piece exemplified, I have been more weighed down by endless videos about political or social crisis in other biennials. Much of the art touched on industry in oblique and poetic ways.
The historical vein meant a tapestry made up not only of gems by Max Ernst, or Berndt and Hiller Becher, but also art works and objects made or used by miners and their families - local embroidered napkins from between 1870 and 1930 featuring idioms in different languages indicate the multiculturalism here born from the flood of immigrant workers to the mineral belt (and spanking new housing).
One of 31 Embroidered Sayings, 1870-1930 from the Museum van de Mijnwerkerswoning, Eisden. Photo: Kristof Vrancken
Much appears in the press literature about the aim that Medina, and his cor-curators Katerina Gregos and Dawn Ades had to let threads and echoes arise between works from across the ages – and they succeeded. Though the undoubted masterpiece here was the building, an uncluttered, non-didactic display let notions of the effects of the industrial on human life seep out from every corner.
Tomaž Furlan, Wear series, 2006-2012. Interactive sculptures. Zavod. P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E. Centre in Galerija P74 © the artist. Photo: Kristof Vrancken
Tomaž Furlan wears a mechanical appendage to enable him to crush cans Robocop-style onto a table. Claire Fontaine's gorgeous flashing neon replicates the slogan from atop the house of culture in Pripyat, built for the work force of Chernoble. Marcel Duchamp's oppressive, 1938 coal sack ‘grotto' is recreated. Nemanja Cvijanovic's tiny music box plays ‘The Internationale' when you turn its handle, which is then blasted eerily from speakers around the site. Its title: Monument to the Memory of the Idea of Internationale. A toy train traverses a landscape of coal mounds and upended piano lids, to the strains of John Coltrane in David Hammon's 1989 Chasing the Blue Train. Progress, exploitation, ideology and culture bounce about.
Nemanja Cvijanovic, Monument to the Memory of the Idea of Internationale, 2010. Vidisquare © the artist. Photo: Kristof Vrancken
Naturally, the works all looks fabulous in the grand shell of Waterschei, but the buidlings' specificities are used to particularly compelling effect in Oswaldo Maciá's sound installation, in which the sound of hammers striking anvils gets ever louder in a narrowing gangway, and a specially designed metallic scent aims to invoke ‘failure'.
It was the specificities of workers' experience that was one of the show's strengths. Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis's moving Battle of Orgreave, reconstructs a bloody confrontations between police and miners in 1980s Britain; Marge Monko's emotionally engaging Nora's Sisters, sets the words of a Soviet factory-set play by Nobel winner Elfriede Jelinek over montaged archive photos of women workers.
Still from Marge Monko's Nora's Sisters, 2009, photos from the Estonian Film Archive © the artist
Antonio Vego Mastela bothered a miner for days to help him make his piece, Study of Exhaustion. It is a small, rough silvery ball - a ‘boleo' of coca leaf chewed by the miner during a shift for to repress hunger.
Benjamin Britten provided the soundtrack to the avant-garde documentary Coal Face - with WH Auden voicing his own script - by Alberto Cavalcanti, the most engrossed I have been by a film in a gallery for a while - or was that the Cinematek films? Miners were portrayed as the heroic lynchpins for a glorious machine age, then found themselves defunct.
The historical gallery was fascinating in a quiet way - just as the overall biennial artist list is, intentionally, not a starry one. Here were shifts in the location of romance in the visual - the fad for the picturesque took off when the industrial age did, as rural scenes gained a new appeal, while, conversely, industrial landscapes took on sublime resonance. The visual art history of pollution was represented, even that of prehistorical carboniferous forests.
Emile Claus's De ondergaande zon op de Theems, 1918, appeared in 'The Aesthetics of Pollution'. SD Worx
Miner-artists' works had a stranger pull. Tom McGuiness's 1963 Closing Time was magical and frightening, with figures stumbling into a jewel-like factory row landscape. Oliver Kilbourn's 1974 triptych showing a pit pony nosing open an air door was remarkably affecting.
There was horror scattered everywhere here, of course. Henry Moore sketches of miners' bodies in strained movement underground, met a small, unsettling picture, Characteristic Positions of a Puller at Work by Robert Heslop. John Martin's Lord of the Rings-esque aquatints bombastically embodied Milton's vision, and the section: ‘Underground as Hell'.
The Soviet pick operator Alexey Stakhanov was given a whole ‘ism' to himself after a record-breaking shift in 1935, and a whole room at Manifesta 9. It was a tight selection – a few posters, two films, and ephemera including the issue of Time Magazine for which he was the cover boy, carrying the tag line ‘Workers of the world unite on his wife's silk lingerie and perfume.'
What was refreshing was the show's lack of art-as-activism. Medina, co-curated When faith moves mountains with Francis Alÿs, a participatory if poetic event (‘so I'm not innocent,' he admits) but expresses a desire for a new mode in art now. ‘Lots of community-based interventions around events like this have become slightly shallow'. So was he championing something else? ‘That's not the right word,' he answers. ‘I was testing - the suggestion that the event could take on itself the task of that political mediation.'
‘Because this is a working-class community, people don't have in their system that it's such a good idea to go to a museum. But I believe in those things.' Its ‘classical presentation', navigability, and straightforward labeling all fed into this.
Miners' Heads, 1950 - 2012, made from potatoes by self-taught Manuel Durán, a Spanish immigrant miner © the artist
In another recent interview on the exhibition, Medina stated that although the dark side of capitalism is present everywhere, ‘the exhibition is hopeful about artistic practice'. He wanted ‘to avoid skepticism,' and, rather than eschew material objects, convey that ‘even the most commercial practices have the task of bearing witness to what the world is.'
A rich stream of ideas like this can surely only be hopeful - proof of the power of art to get behind, under and around cultural and social history and deepen it.
A still from The Mines: 14 Films on the Belgian Coal Mines, 2012 by Cinematek Brussels. Royal Belgian Film Archive, Brussels. All rights reserved
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