A More Focused Manifesta Fires up a Former Coal Building in Belgium

Ni Haifeng’s “Para-Production” (2008-2012) at Manifesta 9
(Photo: © Nicolai Hartvig)

GENK, Belgium — The poetically dilapidated André Dumont coal mining complex in Waterschei is an ideal setting for the first single-site edition of Manifesta, the roving European biennale that seeks to insert itself into the socio-political landscape wherever it touches down.

The blue collar-majestic building, with its 258,000 square feet, is an icon in a Limburg region that is still working to emerge from its post-industrial downturn. Here, houses, roads, and canals attest to a former way of life pegged to coal, hero miners, and, eventually, the industry's decline. All of which, alongside post-modern considerations of production, form Manifesta 9’s central elements.

As raw material, coal is central to a handful of works in the exhibition, from Marcel Broodthaers’ “Trois tas de charbon” (1967), complete with miniature Belgian flags, to Richard Long’s “Bolivian Coal Line,” and Bernar Venet’s “Tas de charbon” (1963), which is essentially a pile of coal in variable dimensions. Bookending those works, Raoul Ubac’s dozens of hanging sacks “Le plafond de Duchamp,” an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s “1200 Coal Sacks” that appeared at the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris, emphasizes the artists' approach to coal as conceptual objet trouvé.

Whereas these works toy with the inherent artistic value in the aesthetics of coal — a natural minimalism of sorts — other pieces tackle mining’s socio-economics head on, like Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgi’s arresting “The Battle of Orgreave,” video reenactments of the 1984 mineworkers’ strike and clashes with authorities. Several artists' videos interviewing miners — with inevitable political stand-offs — find their echoes in more traditional documentaries about Genk’s workers, with an archive of employment papers putting faces to the story. A landscape of prayer mats brought by Turkish immigrants underlines the multiculturalism that industry also brought to the region. A very humanistic and somewhat redemptive image of the miner emerges from the art and archives — that of a former hero worker supplanted by financiers and traders in the boom economy of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Manifesta is staged across three levels, each of which has its own visual identity and focus. The first floor presents local ties under the title “17 Tons,” with old maps of the André Dumont mine, scale models, documentary materials, and other objects hinting at life in and around the mine. The second floor presents the aforementioned pieces and other modern artworks related to mining, including the biennale’s two most imposing entries: Christian Boltanski’s “Les régistres du Grand-Hornu” (1997), a 130-feet-long wall of metal boxes with photographs and registration numbers of miners, and Ni Haifeng’s “Para-Production” installation of an enormous rag tapestry and piles of discarded cloth, set against a row of sewing machines that have fallen silent. The dual monumentalism — of humanity in Boltanski’s work and of manufacture run amuck in Ni Haifeng’s installation — serves to draw a parallel between Manifesta’s miner focus and its broader look at production, which comes to the fore on the third floor.

In the last section of smaller and more conceptual contemporary works adds an almost postmodern perspective to questions of production. Some construe production as an attempt to fill a void, as in Yan Tomaszewski’s video of a proposed redevelopment of the former Renault car plant on Île Seguin in suburban Paris. Meanwhile Jota Izquierdo’s multimedia installation “Capitalismo Amarillo: Special Economic Zone” underlines the strange symbiosis of buyers and sellers in the fake luxury goods market. Production and destruction are portrayed as crude and primordial acts in works like Tomaž Furlan’ “Wear Series,” in which the artist puts on mechanic contraptions to, among other things, crush cans, in a comment on white-collar routines. Ante Timmerman’s installation of a performance-hosting office space goes further still, positing production as a tightly engineered human process.

Crucially, the play between Manifesta’s different questions and statements is never too obvious. The works are well spaced and find a nice resonance with the cracked paint and crumbling walls that were left unrepaired when the mining complex was renovated after being abandoned for years. Similarly, curators Cuauhtémoc Medina, Dawn Ades, and Katerina Gregos have deftly avoided the trappings of a mapped-out exhibition, leaving room for a wide range of readings thanks to a thread of aesthetic echoes and thematic conversations that ping-pongs across the entire building. No work does so more literally than Nemanja Cvijanovi?’s tiny lo-fi music box that, triggered by curious visitors on the top floor, plays the first few notes of the socialist anthem The Internationale into microphones, the sound traveling through more microphones and speakers on the floor below, with the melody finally emerging as a wall of sound outside.

Manifesta 9’s theme, "The Deep of the Modern," is less deep than broad, examining not only coal and mining’s influence on modern art and life, but also allowing art to return the favor, in a dialogue that is as much heard as felt. The exhibition blends the curatorial liberty of a biennale with the coherence of a traditional show, and ultimately produces an innovative format for showing a cross-section of art that is both conceptual, contemporary, historically curious, and classically attuned.

Click on the slide show to see images from Manifesta 9.

Click here to read our Q&A with Manifesta curator Cuauhtémoc Medina.