In Winterslag nu als Creatief Centrum and C-Mine and Manifesta 9 I brought my first comments on one of the top three visual arts events in Europe, the nomadic biennial Manifesta 9 in the old Waterschei mine site in Genk, Limburg province.
Artistic impression of Europe’s coal-mining heritage,
Yesterday I revisited the artistic impression of Europe’s coal-mining heritage, where the Devon colliers also could have their say with their brushes, next to the sketches “Four Studies of Miners at the Coalface” of Henry Moor. It was very good that the modern art exhibition also showed how some 19the century artists glamorized the industrial revolution and idolized the smog as being part of the better world.
Brussels artist Contantin Meunier with “Au pays noir” from 1893, found in storage at the Musée d’ Orsay in Paris, gives a good example of the influence of industry on landscape painting.
In such pieces of art, we notice that Manifest has not stolen its name. It clearly brings a manifest. By having its geo-political, socio-economic focus, the Amsterdam-based foundation, established in 1996 specifically address the questions of a European identity. “We investigate political climate, cultural identity, geo-politics, technology and the status of Europe itself,” explains Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen. “We closely watch social and political developments throughout Europe.”
And this critical look can be felt throughout the whole exhibition in Genk, where I did find some of the latest works a little bit without inspiration or not so well worked out.
Exploring the status of Europe through contemporary art
Though it is good to have an exhibition which does not want to be a platform to explore the status of contemporary art but wanting to be a platform to explore the status of Europe through contemporary art.And as such it succeeded very well.
Having been previously staged in cities like Rotterdam, Murcia and Ljubljana, the event avoids the main economic and cultural centres to immerse itself in areas that are current examples of a Europe challenged by expansion, economic urgencies and an industrial landscape in upheaval. Which took them right to the city of Genk.
Cities and/or regions bid to host Manifesta, and, along with a financial investment, must fit in with the biennial’s profile. “The proposal was in response to the very particular history and context of the city of Genk and of the wider region,” explains Manifesta co-curator Katerina Gregos. “Genk is one of the three most important industrial regions in Flanders and forms a kind of general access to the southern part of Belgium – the former coal mining and steel works in the Borinage – and connects to the Aachen region in Germany and also symbolically to Britain. So that whole region was the industrial heartland of Europe prior to the process of de-industrialisation that happened since the 1960s onwards.”
Manifesta was intrigued, then, by Limburg’s place in the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion, one of the many cross-border regions in Europe that cooperate with each other in a variety of areas, such as commerce and trade. The Belgian province of Liège, the German-speaking part of Belgium, Germany’s Aachen region and the southern section of the Dutch province of Limburg make up the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion, which encompasses three languages.
Manifesta sees Limburg as a sort of mini version of the European Union, partly due to its place in the Euroregion and partly due to its situation where three countries come together. But possibly most compelling is its role in the formation of the EU itself. Limburg lies at the centre of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a treaty between France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux, which was a direct predecessor of the EU.
Shifting centres of industrial production and the shifting geographies of the industrial product
If you are looking for a scale model of the effects of a changing political, industrial, cultural and social landscape in the EU, look no further than Limburg. “The exhibition takes its cue from this rich period of mining history,” says Gregos, “but also from the shifting centres of industrial production and the shifting geographies of the industrial product.”
We are given an impression of the beginning of industrial revolution and how countries with their political system, tried to cope with it. Some regimes even created “a figure” (Alexey Stakhanov) to follow, like the Stalin system took one collier as example to follow, to get an higher production. The Stakanovsky legend confounded the whole capitalist world.
We are also given an impression of the end of figurative painting in the Soviet painting and the ‘no choice’ of propaganda painting, or the choice of camps or death.
But remarks are also given in the pieces of art on the way we mis-use our environment, and how pollution can over-win men. The plastic debris from the see and the neon lights of Chernobil have to warn the visitors and next generations. I liked the ‘remake’ of the Duchamp work were the autumn leaves and the chair were gone but the gunny sacks were still manifest on the ceiling. (weighing down)
The exhibition succeeded in giving an idea of the changing industrial world, its influence on the way of living and on the way of expression. It succeeded also in giving an idea of the the restructuring of the economic system, which has repercussions both in materials and in humans, the social changes, the demise of the welfare state, the changing nature of labour, the myth of clean labour.
Deep of the Modern
The tagline for Manifesta 9 is The Deep of the Modern, a reference to the physical depth of coal mining and the traces that defunct industry leaves on contemporary society. In order to sufficiently bridge the past to the present, curators decided to include a historical art section, another first for Manifesta. Housed inside a climate-controlled venue built inside the Waterschei, the collection includes paintings, photography and film from the late 18th to the 21st century that illustrate how industry, and especially coal, influenced the work of artists and filmmakers, aesthetically, in terms of content and in the making of propaganda.
Next: Pictorial view of Manifesta 9