Story with an open ending
Elīna Dūce, Visual Arts Theorist
European Biennial of Contemporary Art Manifesta 9 exhibition The Deep of the Modern
02.06.–30.09.2012. André Dumont mine in Waterschei, Genk, Belgium
Like a greeting to the Manifesta 9 creative team from their colleagues (1), on the cover of the latest issue of Manifesta Journal(2) (No. 14) there was artist Nanna Debois Buhl’s 2009 photograph in which a little note with the caption “Respect History. Do not touch” is pictured next to an old glass fruit bowl. This uncertainty about what to do with history has also been observed by Manifesta 9 curator, Mexican Cuauhtémoc Medina, while living in Europe, and he offered to integrate historical facts and statements at the Manifesta 9 contemporary art exhibition, The Deep of the Modern. Like Manifesta cultural heritage coordinator Edgar Hermans predicted(3), someone will ask: “Why this has not been done before?” Why have the roots of contemporary art been “clipped”? Why doesn’t it get surveyed over a broader period of time, rather than removed from previous experience and the cultural context?

In “small” (local) exhibition practice this sort of combination isn’t anything new, however. One only needs to recall the Piens traukos (‘Milk in Containers’) exhibition last year at the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum, in which Kaspars Podnieks’ video installation Gotiņa (‘Cow’, 2003) and thematic illustrations from the Latvian National Museum of Art collection were exhibited side-by-side with historical milk processing equipment.
Ni Haifeng. Para-production. Textile shreds, sewing machines. Variable dimensions. 2008-2012
Photo: Līga Marcinkeviča
Meanwhile, the small town (by Belgian standards) of Genk and its environs had attracted the attention of Manifesta 9 curators (the biennial’s co-curators are Katerina Gregos and Dawn Ades) with its coal mining heritage. Until the end of the 1980s there were three coal mines operating here in the one small town, and coal extraction was at the basis of the town’s growth. Black gold and its influence on the development of industry, an increase in the volume of production of consumer goods, changes in the customary rhythm and standards of life in the 20th century became the theme for this biennial, thus avoiding accusations which had been received at previous biennials about ignoring the cultural and historical features of the site chosen for the event. Even more so – various generations from the Limburg province were involved in the creation of the The Deep of the Modern exhibition. A cultural heritage section, “16 Tons”, was introduced into the customary format of the Manifesta contemporary art exhibition in honour of the coal miners who lived in Limburg province, and based on the curators’ concept about the extraction of coal as a foundation for the modern era, a selection of earlier works of art about, around and with coal had been chosen and given a place in “The Age of Coal”, the exhibition’s art history section.

This conglomerate of art works and historical evidence has been set up under one roof, at the Waterschei coalmine building, which provides Manifesta one extra “first time ever” point, for uniting all projects on the one site. Plus another, to my mind, moving fact – the electricity and the lighting for The Deep of the Modern in this building is provided by cable which came from Lithuania. But more about that later…

The Poetics of Restructuring
In the contemporary art exhibition, the black, energy-giving substance appears in a variety of “aggregate conditions”: as a natural phenomenon, an economic and/or political means to achieve some goal with the diverse consequences it causes, as well as an indirect impulse for constructing a vision of the future.

The authors of some works have played around with the theme of coal as a substance, the stress above ground created by its extraction, or have tried to conjure up the feelings of the coal miners when they’re underground. For example, Carlos Amorales (born 1970) has created a Coal Drawing Machine (2012) that, like a fax or printer, only ten times larger, and inspired by some unknown impulse, draws images in charcoal. These, hung from the ceiling, create labyrinths and menacingly remind us about the emotionless aesthetic created by machines.

Oswaldo Maciá (born. 1960) in turn has reconstructed the acoustic and olfactory atmosphere of the Waterschei mine in the installation Martinete (2011–2012), which has been set up in the narrow corridor leading to the mine shafts, making one think about the oppressiveness of the underground atmosphere and a side effect of industrialization – the unbearable noise. In the video Sounds from Beneath (2010–2011), Mikhail Karikis (born 1975) and Uriel Orlow (born 1973), with the help of the former Snowdown (USA) Coal Mine Men’s Choir who had climbed into the coal pit, have also depicted the presence of banging hammers, drilling, explosions, reverberations, machine motors and other sounds in the man-made underground.
Maarten Vanden Eynde. Plastic Reef. Plastic debris. 2008-2012
Photo: Elīna Dūce
On the other hand Ante Timmermans (born 1976), influenced by the Waterschei mine, has created a little office from the walls of prefabricated shelving which are stacked with packs of white office paper, so that in this claustrophobic space he could sign, stamp, archive or simply pointlessly and routinely transfer piles of documents from one shelf to the another. In his perfor(m)ative installation Make a Molehill out of a Mountain (of work) (2012), the fruits of a person’s pointless labours – the tiny paper circles pressed out by a hole punch – are carried out of the office and poured in a neat pile. And the neverending “rat’s treadmill” continues, in other words – does it really make any difference in which hell you’re sitting…

A string of artists, as if knocking at our conscience, reveal the dark side of how energy obtained from the earth is used. Pollution of the environment or the hundreds of kilogrammes of rubbish thrown out by people into the ocean are fused in Maarten Van den Eynde’s (born 1977) Plastic Reef (2008–2012). Edward Burtynsky (born 1955) in his series of photographs China: Manufacturing, (2005) has photographed thousands of workers in China’s factories. Impressive. It is an unidentifiable army dressed in identical uniforms doing mechanical work, standing up on their feet for untold hours in their allocated some tens of square centimetres, in order to provide the world with the volume of goods it demands. The next bit of “progress” or step in borderless craving for consumption can be seen in Paolo Woods (born 1970) series of photographs Chinafrica (2007). This is the colonisation of which is being carried out today by Chinese businessmen in Africa, investing resources in the construction of factories and promoting the immigration of Chinese people to the newly acquired countries.

The central position, due to its size, is taken by Ni Haifeng’s (born 1964) Para-Production (2008–2012). The artist has obtained several tons of fabric off-cuts from China’s textile factories that produce articles for the European market. A portion of these have been sewn together into a monumental tapestry, flowing away just like a waterfall, and its end is not visible (because of the dark pieces of cloth, it could just as well be a large heap of coal). One could just keep stitching and stitching onto it endlessly, without ever gaining a sense of perspective (any visitor to the exhibition can play around with the off-cuts at the sewing machines next to the installation and try to imagine the work plan ahead for the next eight hours).
Carlos Amorales. Coal Drawing Machine. Installation. 2012
Photo: Līga Marcinkeviča
A catastrophe section then follows. For example, the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant emergency in Lina Selander’s (born 1973) works Lenin’s Lamp Glows in the Peasant’s Hut (2011) and Anteroom of the Real, (2010–2011) about the radiation caused by the uranium, and Pripeti – the Soviet model city 3 km from Chernobyl, now closed down, where the plant employees’ families lived before the catastrophe. The town of approximately 50,000 inhabitants had a cultural centre called Энергетик (‘Powerman’) and a copy of its sign in neon lights has been brought into this coal mine by the Claire Fontaine (founded in Paris in 2004) group of artists, as a reminder that in this beautiful life we can suddenly be stymied.

The Ignalina nuclear power plant, which experienced a bureaucratic clampdown, has been reborn in Rosella Biscotti’s (born 1978) work Conductor (2012). The previously mentioned cable (the central one) which lights up the Manifesta exposition came from this power plant in Lithuania, where the artist purchased the 500 kg power cable as “surplus to requirements” at an auction in 2011. She also purchased some lead at the auction, and in the spirit of minimalist Carl Andre (born 1935) this has been transformed into a parquet called Title One: The tasks of the Community, (2012), a reminder about Europe’s agreement on the production of energy and its later annulment(4). The view that in art the beautiful doesn’t have to be original, but should correspond to character or temperament, as Andre once said, goes hand in hand with modernism and the aesthetic of an atomic electricity station.

Some of the “Poetics of Reconstruction” artists have entered into the role of being researcher–historians. In Ana Torfs’ (born 1963) installation “[…] STAIN […]” (2012), the extraction of synthetic paint from carboniferous tar is examined, while in Nemanja Cvijanović’s (born 1972) interactive sound installation Monument to the Memory of the idea of the Internationale (2010) the workers’ anthem ‘The Internationale’ and the dream it carries of the unity of the proletariat is dissected. Jota Izquierdo (born 1972) follows the circulation of chinaderas, or Chinese copies and fakes, and the operation of the international market in his multimedia installation Capitalismo Amarillo: Special Economic Zone, (2011–2012).
Michael Matthys. Drawings from the series La Ville Rouge. Cow blood on paper. 29.7x42 cm. 2005-2009
Photo: Elīna Dūce
Utopian ideas or the question of how art should “insinuate itself” into this economic and political system is addressed by the Estonian Visible Solutions LLC group of artists (founded in 2010). In the Trading Post (2012) project (more like a stand), it offers visitors various creative proposals for improving life, for example, Exterior Space for Interiors “Clarity” (2010), which provides people with fresh air and green grass to boost thinking and inspiration at home or in the office. At the Trading Post one can also encounter Hoisting the Banner (2012), characteristic of Visible Solutions. This time between the Estonian flag with its invisible hand(5) you can see also the flags of Latvia and Finland, and bearing in mind that there is no representation from either Latvian or Finnish artists at the Manifesta 9 contemporary art show, the question arises – is our limited presence just a friendly gesture from our neighbours?

The Age of Coal

Here among the various bits and pieces, such as a fine little woman’s boot, 2 cm in size, carved out of coal by a scarcely known man, a coal miner, and the first images of factory smokestacks in painting and graphics, one can encounter works in the “dirty aesthetic” by chrestomathic artists. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s (1887–1968) 1200 Coal Sacks (1938), which was first hung from the ceiling at the Exposition internationale du surrélisme, Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris, disturbing the “white box” impression of the gallery (the sacks were filled with newspapers, however, for safety reasons), or Henry Moore’s (1898–1986) 1942 drawing of coal miners – the only images of humans he ever drew as part of his work. Christian Boltanski’s (born 1944) Les régistres du Grand-Hornu (1997) can be seen as a wall, 40 metres long, made from tin biscuit boxes, the type in which documents and all other life essentials were kept in earlier times, hidden under the bed. Affixed to the boxes are identification numbers and photographs of the Grand Hornu coal miners, which symbolically assign an identity to the usually anonymous miners. There are also the works of earth art luminaries – Robert Smithson’s (1938–1973) Nonsite – Site Uncertain (1968), and Richard Long’s (born 1945) Bolivian Coal Line (1992). Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924–1976) began creating works from coal in the 1960s, in this way turning coal mining into a token of Belgium’s identity. This is most strikingly expressed in the work exhibited at the biennial, the Trois tas de charbon (1967). Rene Magritte, on seeing it, had apparently said that Broodthaers is more a sociologist than an artist.

Another artist has done a job worthy of a sociologist, only on the Eastern front. Along with the photographic image of Soviet coal miner Aleksey Stakhanov(6) on the cover of the American magazine Time in 1935, one can see here the poster Long Live Stalinist Tribe of Heroes Stakhanovites! (1935) done by the supporter of Soviet ideology of Latvian descent and a passionate exponent of photomontage, Gustavs Klucis (1895–1938).

16 Tons
You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

In this sort of mood the popular coal miners’ song (anthem) “16 Tons” conveys its message, giving rise to the name of the Manifesta exhibition cultural heritage section. Its “drawcard” is an unprepossessing, 6x8 cm sized fraying photograph which should be viewed with a magnifying glass. The photo, taken in 1952, is of a young couple who had been forced to separate, so that the husband could go to Limburg to work in the coal mines while his wife remained in their native Greece. On separating, they cut the photo in half and each kept the other’s image. Once reunited, the photograph was put together again … with needle and thread. These people, whose son brought the photo to the Manifesta organizers, still live in Genk.
The prayer's mats of Turkish imigrants. 1950-1960s
Photo: Elīna Dūce
Each item, even the smallest, contains countless memories. The coal mining workers’ “work booklets”, too, that provide information about the mine workers (including women and minors): commencement of work, duties and similar.

The many-layered cultural historical material also includes portraits of coal miners by a coal miner’s son of Spanish origin, Manuel Duran (born 1930), skillfully carved or modelled from coal or potatoes (he himself had worked as a miner); the interiors of local houses were once decorated by embroidered wall panels with proverbs in various European languages (for example, one of them states in a Slavic language: “We can’t live from love alone. We need food on the table”; comics about experiences in a mine in the Limburg province. A song well known to us is playing, it is ‘Marina’, composed in 1958 by the son, Rocco Granata, of a Limburg coal miner who had come over from Italy. On view is a five metre wide filigree Indian ink and pencil illustration in digital print The True Cost of Coal (2008), which tells of the effect of coal extraction on the ecology and changes in people’s habits, by the designer group Beehive Design Collective (USA); immigrant Muslim prayer mats (used so that prayers can be said in a clean place); models of mine shafts, used to teach budding coalmining specialists; sketches of the splendid Art Déco style building of the Waterschei; coal mining implements of various size and importance (a great number were obtained from the Mijndepot Waterschei museum collection); documentary films; archive materials about the work of coalminers and clashes with police in the mid 20th century. The Lara Almarcegui (born 1972) project Wasteland (Genk) (2004–2016), approved by the local city council, is like a reminder that coal developed from the remains of plants over many millions of years. The plan of the project is not to interfere with the natural processes on a one hectare plot of land in Genk for twelve years.

Manifesta in the spirit of The Deep of the Modern
“We need more history, not less, and it is careless and dangerous to disregard it. In contemporary art we all-too-often see this problem emerge in the shortcomings of art education. […] Works being blindly churned out without knowledge of their genealogy and what has been done before,”(7) writes “Poetics of Reconstruction” co-curator Katerina Gregos.

Even though at times, while viewing the exhibition, the question arises about the artist’s status or role in society, the multifaceted contribution of the local residents cannot be denied – the educative events for all age groups, etc. – which has “packaged” for the passer-by not only the town, but also a whole era. An era which at some point, possibly, people may have wanted to forget.

This article was enabled with the support of the State Culture Capital Foundation.

(1) The magazine has an editorial board independent of the Manifesta biennial, but it is published by the Manifesta Foundation in Amsterdam, which also stages the biennial.
(3) Edgar Hermans: the Heritage Section // Manifesta. The Deep of the Modern, 2012 – p. 33.
(4) The Ignalina nuclear power plant was built in accordance with the European Atomic Energy Community or Euratom Treaty signed in 1957, which envisaged the development of the production of atomic energy, in this way strengthening economic cooperation in Europe. Ironically, for Lithuania to join the EU, it had to comply with various criteria, one of which was that it had to close the Ignalina nuclear power plant. In 2004 the first reactor was closed down, and the second in 2009.
(5) For more about the invisible hand see: Porri, Anneli. Follow the Invisible Hand!: Visible Solutions. Studija, 2010 , No. 74, pp. 41–48.
(6) Alexey Stakhanov (1906–1977) set a record in 1935, by digging 14 times more coal than a coal miner could on average dig up with a pneumatic hammer, which at the time was the latest achievement in modern equipment. He was put forward as an example to increase worker productivity and to demonstrate the might of the Soviet Union. A Stakhanov Movement was developed, which workers who exceeded the production plan could join. He died due to chronic alcoholism.
(7) Katerina Gregos. Is the Past Another Country? // Manifesta Journal, No. 13, 2012.
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