On Sept. 10, thousands of miners travelled to a defunct coalmine, the venue for this year’s Manifesta 9, a European art biennial that changes venues every two years. This edition, titled “The Deep of the Modern” marked the 25th anniversary of the closing of the mine in Genk, Belgium. Before a celebration cocktail in the evening, the miners were invited with their families to visit the exhibition, as the building and the works in the show relate to their past and culture.
Curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina, Katerina Gegos and Dawn Ades, this exhibition focuses on the effects of coal on art. This exhibition examines how coal affected and defined artistic production, on the collective memory of the coalminers, and offers some contemporary reflections on the changes that incurred in the production system worldwide in the 21st century. “This is and was a memorable moment for the mine workers in Limburg, which forces us to remember the 100 years of coalmining in Europe, the social struggle of the coal miners and to acknowledge the impact the closure of coalmining and the conversion processes afterwards had on our current industrial and social changes and structures,” Hedwig Fijen, Director of Manifesta, told A.i.A. via email.
Previous editions of the European biennial have been sited in Rotterdam, Luxembourg, Ljubljana, Frankfurt, Donostia-San Sebastián, Nicosia, Trentino-Alto Adige and the Region of Murcia. “The relevance of the biennial is based on its site-specificity,” said Fijen.
“Unlike other exhibitions that have treated the subject of art and coal, this is not an illustrated history of coal mining, but places the emphasis on the visual transformations caused by coal within the history of art from the late 18th century to the present,” said Ades. Among the artists are Henry Moore, Maximilien Luce, Joseph Stella, Max Ernst, Grigori Alexandrov and David Hammons.
The show takes place on four floors of a gigantic, skeletal Art Deco building that once accommodated offices, meeting rooms, wash areas and changing rooms for the miners, administrative staff and management. The biennale is separated into sections for contemporary, historical works and heritage.
Ades, an independent British curator, contributed to the historical section located on the building’s second floor. This section features a selection of artworks from the 19th to the early 21st century reflecting the influence of coal as the main source of energy during the Industrial Revolution, and on the history of modern art.
A number of works use coal as a material. Richard Long’s Bolivian Coal Line (1992), is a 92-foot-long sculpture created with pieces of black coal. Also included is Marcel Duchamp’s 1200 Coal Sacks, with sacks filled with coal dangling from the ceiling of a darkened room. The piece is a reinstallation of the work first exhibited at the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris.
Other pieces took a more narrative or biographical approach. Christian Boltanski’s installation, Les Régistres du Grand-Hornu (1997) featured old tin boxes covered with the photos and registration numbers of the miners who once worked at Grand-Hornu, a former Belgian mine complex.
Installed in the Heritage section on the first floor is a model of a coalmine made of LEGOs by V. Kevin Kalinski. Sculpted portraits of miners’ heads by Manuel Duran are stylistically both totemic and social-realist. The Mysterious Mine, a 1990 comic book by Limburg-based designer Paul Geerts, is a folkloric tale. An entire room is dedicated to a collection of objects-Vespa, posters, a jukebox that once belonged to Rocco Granata, the son of an Italian immigrant who came to Limburg to work in the Waterschei mine, and in 1958 wrote a song, “Marina,” which became an international hit.
“Poetics of Restructuring,” the contemporary section, presents responses by 39 artists to changes in production and capitalism in the 21st century. Amsterdam-based Ni Haifeng showed a large-scale installation, Para-Production (2008-2012), with several tons of fabric trimmings piled in heaps on the floor. Visitors can use sewing machines to attach the scraps, while enormous patchworks hang from the ceiling. Claire Fontaine’s The House of Energetic Culture (2012), an approximately 32-feet-long neon sign based on one from Pripyat, once home to Chernobyl workers and a symbol of the Soviet dream. Pripyat has been abandoned since 1986.