Deep of Modernism
Manifest 9, Belgium
Through September 30th, 2012
Manifesta, the nomadic European Biennial of Contemporary Art, has a “glocal” approach. An international curator is invited to work in and with the specific context of a European region, interconnecting the local with global issues. The Belgian flavor of the 2012 Manifesta meets the visitor already at the ticket counter: it is the smell of pommes frites (the word french fries is misleading...) baked in the adjoining cafeteria. Yet, unlike me, chief curator Cuauhtémoc Medina from Mexico-City did not get distracted by Belgian delicacies. Manifesta 9 focuses on Belgium's history of coal mining. Deep of Modernism literally goes underground exploring the impact of coal and, more in general, industrial capitalism on the development of modern culture and society. The setting is perfect for such an endeavor. Located in the city of Gent in the Flemish region of Limburg the exhibition takes place in a large-scale industrial Art Deco complex of the former coal mine Waterschei. It was here that Flanders' mine industry flourished in the early 20th century.
Cuauhtémoc Medina, in collaboration with co-curators Dawn Ades and Katerina Gregos, has chosen the format of the triptych to tackle the complexity of the socio-economical, cultural, and ecological aspects of industrial capitalism. Also that is a perfect fit in predominantly catholic Belgium: issues are mostly solved in a tripartite way. The federate state of Belgium has three communities (the Flemish, the French, and the German-speaking Community) and three regions (the Flemish Region, the Brussels Capital Region, and the Walloon Region). In the cathedral-like Waterschei building Manifesta 9 is presented as a triptych with equalized panels: one section consists of contemporary art. 35 international artists were invited. An art historical part features 19th and early 20th century art works. A third part focusses on the legacy of the Limburg mining industry, presenting the historical objects and practices of this heritage.
Would it be possible to have an insightful show on the impact of coal without exhibiting a single piece of it? Deep of Modernism going beyond the literal? Yet Cuauhtémoc Medina shows the coal and does so in abundance. A few legendary works are included. A reconstruction is to be seen of Marcel Duchamps' 1200 Coal Sacks, originally displayed at the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris. Robert Smithson used coal for his Non-sites, an indoor earthwork that serves as an abstract representation of an outdoor location. For the occasion Richard Long, another land artist, positioned coal in one of his typical line constellations. Marcel Broodthaers played in his career with the materiality of Belgian identity, using mussels but also coal for his sculptures. Besides the material of coal the exhibitions features also its worker. A biggest tribute is to be found in the contemporary art section. In a video by Mikhail Karikis and Uriel Orlow a choir of former miners recreate the sounds heard while working deep underground. The heroism of the video, depicting the miners singing amid a desolate landscape, approaches the genre of hagiography. However, more touching I found the tea towels in the region's heritage section, embroidered by the miners' wives at home. The gender-aspect of industrial capitalism is thereby touched upon, yet not further elaborated in the exhibition.
I might be wrong about that. I must admit that after a while I couldn't any longer see the forest for the trees. The omnipresence of coal, in its local history, its heritage, its actuality, blurred my viewing ability. Duchamps, Smithson, Long, Broodthaers must have been elaborating on different issues but the juxtaposition of their works in the show flattened these distinctions. Visually, coal is not a very exciting material; its form, size, and color are invariable the same. Yet the contemporary art section brought retinal relief. Coal could change here into nuclear power, underground work transformed into the abstract procedures of post-industrial production and distribution, and, pfew, the European focus could now make place for Chinese exploitation. So far for scrutinizing exploitative structures of European capitalism in the past: what a relief that in the present the scapegoat can always be the “other”. In his photographs Edward Burtynsky shows men and women at work in large-scale industrial factories in China. Paolo Woods analyses in his photographic series Chinafrica the conquest of Africa by the Chinese economy. Jota Izquierdo presents Capitalismo Amarillo: Special Economic Zone, tackling the flow of cheap, mass-produced consumer goods produced in Guangzhou to the street market in Mexico City. The title refers to “yellow peril”, a racialized description for the sense of threat that Europeans and Americans felt at the increasing numbers of Chinese laborers arriving on their soil at the end of the nineteenth century. Apparently there is thus nothing new about the Chinese orientation of the curatorial set-up of Manifesta 9.
Did the contemporary art section thematizing the restructuring of present-day economy loose touch with the local region of Limburg? No, it did not. Limburg's economy survived the closure of its mines well and is still flourishing, now in secondary industry, attracting companies such as Ford and Phillips. The situation is very different in the Walloon ex-mine region of Belgium, which has huge consequences for Belgian politics.Deep of Modernism does not go there. Traditionally, Hilla and Bernd Becher are shown to make the link to the neighboring German Ruhrgebiet. I must have missed out on the Walloon connection. But also in the artist list the names of René Magritte, Marcel Dumont, Achilles Chavée, Marcel Lefrancq, etc. are missing. Surprisingly it was in the rural Walloon mine area of Belgium that in the 1930s a surrealist movement came about. Nowadays visitors can take part in urban safaris in this area of decaying industrial heritage. Organized by the artist Nicolas Buissart the trip includes the place where Magritte's mother committed suicide. The safari involves also a walk around rusting abandoned steel works and along the deserted tracks of Charleroi ghost metro, completed after more than 10 years of work in the early 1980s and since then mostly never used. The Waterschei complex in Genk, however, is up for renovation. After Manifesta 9, so it says in the press pack, it “will be redeveloped as part of a master plan to create Thor park, a business and science complex focusing on innovation and knowledge.” Deep of Modernism finds itself as such at the intersection between the lingering past and fast forward.
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An Paenhuysen is a writer in Berlin.