In Belgium, A Daft Manifesta 9 Is Strong on Coal Metaphors, Light on Coherence

In Belgium, A Daft Manifesta 9 Is Strong on Coal Metaphors, Light on Coherence
Claire Fontaine, "The House of Energetic Culture," 2012
(Photo by Kristof Vrancken / Courtesy Manifesta)

Not to be outdone by other summer blockbusters, the title of Manifesta 9, “The Deep of the Modern,” just begs to be spoken aloud in that commanding baritone voiceover used for movie trailers. And if the show were looking for a tagline or subtitle, “Down the Rabbit Hole” would add just enough zing to this adventuresome biennial, filled with many musicological twists and turns and more than an occasional conceptual slip-up.

The setting is the Waterschei, a landmark Art Deco centerpiece of a now defunct coal-mining complex on the outskirts of Genk, Belgium. For the show, the building is outfitted with three factory-size exhibition floors, each more or less with its own focus: coal-mining heritage; the history of art during the industrial “age of coal,” from roughly 1800 until World War II; and art and its relation to contemporary issues around late capitalism. A few of the works, however, slip between these sections and act as foreshadowing or reflection devices.

 

By way of introduction, Manifesta 9 begins with something unexpected, as predominantly “outsider art” and various ethnographic displays try to trace a social and cultural legacy found around coal mines. Coal and its interplay with artistic production specifically, but also its association to the exhibition locale and labor in a very broad sense, is the main plot device in this three-act play. Accordingly, a collection of Muslim prayer rugs that are well worn from use by Turkish migrant miners, and an archive showcasing dozens of linens embroidered by Belgian miners featuring domestic and occasionally Christian iconography, take pride of place in the austere and dramatically lit first gallery. The entourage to this politically correct reminder that mines host a diverse slew of backgrounds is a quaint blend of engineers’ scale models and architectural drawings of pits and shafts, a Lego model of the same infrastructure, and a wonderful memorabilia museum for Rocco Granata, the son of a Belgian coal miner and a miner himself, who became a one-hit wonder in 1959 with his song “Marina.” With this mise-en-scène, it would seem that the curators, Cuauhtémoc Medina, Dawn Ades, and Katerina Gregos, are not only trying to dig a deep context for mining but also attempting to draw an all-inclusive one.

To put a face on this ensemble, coal miner and artist Manuel Durán’s deft busts of other excavators can be found herein. These intricate portraits gloriously blend medium and idea as many are made of potato pulp, which, as it dries, leaves an amazing terrain of fissures that double as rough-hewn wrinkles, scars, and other marks of character on each head. A little farther on, traditional documentary fare is presented with archival black-and-white films and ephemera that evince a 1966 Belgian miners’ strike and the day-to-day activities of such workers. Strangely, though, behind all of these screenings is a very real curtain—a scrim, actually—that stretches across the entire floor as a sectional divide. But what could be behind such a device? Curiously enough, it is another exhibition; in fact, it’s an entire museum, the Mijndepot.

Established by the mine’s former workers in 2004, this space is home to a gigantic and fabulous collection of digging and diggers’ objects: multinational bric-a-brac, decorated helmets, various uniforms, blasting caps, power augers, small but stocky armored trains that hauled workers and material through the mine, doodles, and, well, just about everything, and then some. Joining these items, which are meticulously displayed in curated and themed sections, are simulated mine shafts, dormitories, and even an enormous working model of the former complex that uses coal as a ground and comes complete with a conveyor belt. It’s safe to assume that some of the engineers joyously tinkered about and built these installations with love. To top it off, the front of the museum is a bar/social club that the former miners run and frequent, where you can buy a strong local beer with a lump of local coal as a toy surprise. As an unexpected treat, this museum ranks up there with finding a forgotten twenty in an old coat pocket, but at the same time it poses a conundrum: Why did the curators of Manifesta 9 try to double the efforts of this very alive and unique institution? Why couldn’t they just leave well enough alone? Were the actual miners not political enough for the Manifesta gang, or were they somehow misrepresentative of a larger community? Whatever the case may be, the curators’ effort, with its rather typical and staid exhibition design, just comes off as trying too hard.

Returning to the expected, the second floor presents the “age of coal” through the use of two now all-too-common tropes of group-show curating: the first, a game of associative cataloguing, and the second, an alternative history told through art. Independent of any illustrative claims, Manifesta 9 is a decent curatorial strategies primer.

The first, and far weaker, attempt tries to use coal, the ore, as a metonym to tie together disparate art objects that make use of the material in any way, shape, or form. In David Hammons’s wry Chasing the Blue Train, 1989, a large and complex installation, an all-blue electric train snakes around upturned piano lids-cum-mountains and through a tunnel covered in coal, all to the music of John Coltrane’s hard-bop breakthrough album from 1957, Blue Train. This sits next to Richard Long’s Bolivian Coal Line, 1992, a long strip of coal laid out like a carpet runner, meant to echo a similar line the artist made as an earthwork in the 1980s. Scattered about elsewhere are several anti-monuments from the late 1960s and early ’70s by Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers featuring the black stuff; these could be read as possible satires of the very strike depicted in the film on the floor below. And in Carlos Amorales’s Drawing Machine, 2012, a plotter retrofitted with charcoal in lieu of a printer cartridge draws esoteric, Celtic-style knots and mazes. Although various narratives could be spun from these tangential pairings and their panoply of signifiers, the anchor for such a web is really arbitrary at best. Fortunately, such sliding puns give way to a far more inspired intertextual play tucked into a self-contained and climate-controlled box on the same floor.

Inside this clunky construction, an exquisitely assembled exhibition-as-essay runs the mineral through various filters. This meditation includes a few obvious touchstones, such as Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of abandoned and decaying industrial structures, but also presents Carboniferous Landscapes, a dazzling subplot that treats coal as a dark fossil, by the Czech illustrator Zdenek Burian, who reconstructed paleontological drawings of pre-historic flora and fauna next to actual skeletal remains, such as the head of an ancient iguanodon unearthed at a mine. Equally chimerical is Max Ernst’s eerie leaf-and-detritus rubbings in his frottage portfolio masterpiece, Histoire Naturelle, 1926, an evocative follow-up to John Martin’s phantasmagorical prints after John Milton’s depiction of the depths of hell in Paradise Lost. Speculative worlds are put into question, though, as the grit and cold reality of the hard labor required, and the pollution produced, in the process of finding and burning coal become the section’s paramount concern.

Grounding this argument, Manifesta 9 presents a trans-historical case study focused at first on the various representations—from poems to paintings to photographs—of the ironworks at Coalbrookdale, in Shropshire, England, which in the words of curator Dawn Ades became a “testing ground for changing attitudes toward nature and the landscape.” Spiraling out from here, images, such as Pierre Paulus de Châtelet’s Pays noir sous la neige, 1909, a grim painting in which nondescript factory employees set to work under a billowing smokestack surrounded by snow and ice, and Francis William Cobb proto-muckraker photojournalistic-like snaps of miners in dangerous conditions, present the industrial world without any embellishment. Although the iron at the ironworks (and, more important, its later transformation into steel) also played a role in the march of industrialization that was at least equal to the part played by coal, this line of the show presents a convincing and layered history in which anesthetic realism was itself a product of these forces. Like the Mijndepot, this buried gem of a section, in todo, is more than worth the trek to the exhibition space.

Keeping in mind that Manifesta 9 is tied to ideas of the historical “modern,” it is not overly shocking that the show comes undone when it wrestles with current affairs in its section on contemporary art. Here the notions of mines, labor, and pollution are conflated to a general, and by now de rigueur, spectacle for how conceptual artists come to grips with serious issues such as underemployment, ecological crisis, and other talking points that came to a head long before the veil of a promised future was yanked off by such events as the ongoing global financial crisis and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. In many ways, this section tries to force a literary parallel equating the social changes of the industrial revolution found in the rest of the exhibition to that of today’s ongoing digital revolution, but like the deft hand found in the earlier exhibition-essay, this story comes off as wishful conjecture no matter how necessary its concerns may be.

With an extra helping of disillusionment comes Visible Solutions, LLC, an Estonian artists’ collaborative-as-enterprise founded in 2010, whose members retrofit national flags by cutting out a ghost, or “invisible hand,” from the center, and then use the new banner as either a prop for a deadpan Monty Python-esque performance or as a “product” for sale. Here, the artists are using Adam Smith and his idea that a metaphoric hand will self-regulate a free market system as it seeks equilibrium as an obvious whipping-boy without going much deeper into the issue of how the metaphor is used as a cover, often hypocritically, to block further discussions on economic theory and government programs such as corporate tax incentives, bailouts, and so on. Like all parody, such a glib snarl runs a precarious line as the catharsis created by such jibes may also replace serious research and debate.

Admittedly tongue-in-check, Visible Solutions, LLC is joined by other checklist ironists and biennial beetles such as the “readymade” collaborative Claire Fontaine. For this show, the group reproduced an old neon sign from a Soviet model city built just outside—and powered by—the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Unlike the original, which still exists but isn’t lit, this new facsimile, titled The House of Energetic Culture, 2012, flickers on and off as both a counterfactual paradox and a sappy, nostalgic rejoinder to broken utopian planning. But wait a second: Speaking of planning, what happen to being rooted in a history of coal and the area around the mine? Certainly there is work out there on hydrofracking or something else.

As a macabre synthesis between these two poles of trade and energy fallout sits A Conductor, 2012, by Rossella Biscotti. For the work, the artist bought scrap metal from the recently condemned Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania at auction and reused it for some of the actual electrical wiring in the Waterschei. More proactive than perverse, the work at least touches on a topic worth discussing in the confines of this building: What to do with material we wish to simply hide and forget? When it comes to infrastructure, a default option is, of course, to transform large, empty buildings into museums with the primary political aim of generating income—through jobs and tourism—for building upkeep, and a secondary aim of creating a linchpin for the gentrification of the surrounding area. Of note here is that following Manifesta 9, the Waterschei may be adapted into a “cultural center” in the mold of the C-mine complex just a few kilometers away.

The tricky thing about this fresh work is that it lacks the longer narrative drawn by the other sections of the show. Our shared proximity to the events may make such artworks seem utterly banal, as the artists and audience may not yet have the critical distance required to take stock of our culture as it brakes. Counterintuitively, it could also be said that in the over-professionalized and costly circuit of art academies, private galleries, biennial systems, and the media, artists and curators may not be close enough to elevate source material from casual topical reporting, neatly packaged and ready to float in any context, to something more rooted and powerful and with as much heart as the Mijndepot. In any case, Oswaldo Maciá’s Martinete, 2011–12, an auditory and olfactory work installed in an abandoned skywalk stemming off the side of the building, serves as a seductive yet ominous keynote betraying a current anxiety and doubt of our age—and possibly of the show at large.

Unlike the rest of the Waterschei, the long and decrepit skywalk was not renovated. Today, it is still covered by several heavy coats of industrial paint that cling to the walls in spite of massive chips, cracks, peels, and other signs of great decay and neglect. Intelligently, Maciá did what all artists should do when visiting charged spaces: Leave them alone as much as possible and try to find the subtlest of touches to amplify the ambience and let history speak. Here the trick was sound, specifically the clang of several steel hammers striking an anvil in the distance. Echoing through the hall, it draws visitors who can walk only so far, as a fence before a bend prevents a line of sight to the source of the sounds. So as to console the viewer’s inability to know the entire picture, Maciá worked with a perfumer to create an alkaline scent that permeates the corridor—his only instruction was to make it smell “like failure.” Whatever fate may bring the Waterschei, let’s hope this piece remains as a messy reminder of a possibly awkward history in light of any retroactive gloss.

This article will appear in the November issue of Modern Painters magazine.

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