Manifesta in Genk, Belgium

This article was published in the March 2013 issue of Sculpture Magazine

The former mining complex building in Genk, Belgium, the Waterschei, is a wonderful relic and an impressive piece of art nouveau architecture that feels more like a sculpture than a building.  The space is pregnant with the history of Limburg – a region that, from 1901 when Andre Dumont discovered coal and until 1986 when the last mine closed, was synonymous with the coal industry in Belgium.  The region has since then reinvented itself, attracting other industries, specifically auto manufacturing and the cultural and tourism industries.

But Genk cannot escape the shadow of its past, and luckily Manifesta, the roving European biennial that used the Waterschei as its only site, didn’t want to ignore it either.   Seamlessly integrated into the theme, The Deep of the Modern, the multiplicity of issues associated with the impact of coal in the local and global contexts are dealt with both directly and indirectly in the three separate sections of Manifesta 9.

The first part of Manifesta, and clearly the one that all the art aficionados flocked to, was the contemporary art section.  It featured thirty-nine international positions, most of whom were lesser-known artists, a strategy that was refreshing and needed after the series of usual suspects that seems to make the international circuits.  Curatorially coherent and artistically significant, Poetics of Restructuring places its focus on labor issues and the changing nature of today’s modes of production.  The impact of the post-industrial Western world on developing countries is carefully treated, as well as the general capitalist and globalisation topics that tend to percolate at any self-respecting biennale.   Several works stood out as not only topical, but poetic and beautiful.

The pièce de resistance is without a doubt Ni Haifeng’s Para-Production, an immense cluster of draping fabric that occupies the entire central atrium of the Waterschei from the ground to the next floor.  Sewing machines are installed for visitors to participate in the Sisyphean task of producing more useless fabric shreds that might eventually end up as part of the sculpture in a future incarnation.  Ni thus highlights the tediousness of the process of production, and the alienation of the worker from the product of his labor, both typical results of modernity.

Another artist that deals with absurd and tedious production processes, as well as Sisyphean tasks that seem to suck individuality out of the worker, is Ante Timmermans.  His Make a Molehill Out of a Mountain(of Work)  treats the subject poetically, especially during his 2-day performance which saw him acting the part of a petty bureaucrat sitting at a desk at the center of a cubicle made from office shelving units functioning as walls, and perforating sheets of paper with a hole-punch.  The sheets were then stamped and filed in 3-ring binders, which were subsequently archived on other shelves in the back.  Out of the paper circles left behind the perforation action, Timmermans was trying to build a hill – a task that was clearly absurd and Sisyphean, but that became funny and engaging.    So engaging in fact that visitors wanted to help him, and several tried out the petty bureaucrat role too, taking Timmermans’s tools and serving themselves the experience.  This did not sit well with the artist, who preferred his audience to just observe.  But relational art is still de rigeur and audiences expect to take an active role in art production, especially in a context that treats issues of production so eloquently.

Coal Drawing Machine by Carlos Amorales examines the relationship between human and machine production.  Amorales  programmed an automatic printing press to create large-scale chalk drawings that were then hung from the ceiling in a labyrinthine layout through which visitors could walk.  Each roll of paper is programmed to feature a different drawing pattern, which is precise in its execution, but due to the nature of charcoal as an ink, also shows signs of imperfection and sometimes smears in its outcome.  The creation of this confusion between craft and machine-manufacturing is an interesting take exactly because the theme of authenticity and aura in art is still such a contested topic.  And of course labor issues are inherent in this discussion, when more and more artists outsource the production of their work to places like China.

Memory, nostalgia, and history are evoked in several projects with particularly captivating results in a few.  Emre Hüner’s installation A Little Larger than the Entire Universe features contemporary objects, many hand-made, others manufactured, exhibited in a manner similar to archaeological artefacts from a past civilization, that not only contain mysterious significances and meanings that we attempt to reconstruct and that continue to escape us, but that we also fetishize as art objects without necessarily understanding their former function.

Monument to the Memory of the Idea of the Internationale, a sound work by Nemanja Cvijanovic, is a small music box with a crank connected to a microphone, that once activated by a visitor, plays the Internationale.  And not only does the Internationale play loudly on the floor with the music box, but it follows you throughout the entire building and its surroundings, enveloping you in layers of history, conflict, labour politics, and ultimately nostalgia for a time when people fought for their principles and utopias, and the world order was still being shaped and defined – was this time ever that way or do we mythologize it?

The demise of the metalworking industry in Charleroi, Belgium is rendered in a poignant and disturbing work by Michael Matthys who created a large installation, La Ville Rouge, composed of hundreds of drawings made in cow blood of the former factory and industrial complex and its demise, along with a larger installation, Moloch, made from 1000 aquatints pasted on the wall as wall paper.

Memory is used in a poetic and lyrical way in Sounds from Beneath, the sound/video installation by Mikhail Karikis and Uriel Orlow that features a choir of former miners set in a desolate post-industrial landscape, vocalizing the underground sounds that they remember from their coalmining days.  The resulting chants and visuals turn into a sculptural piece as they engulf and place us in a liminal space not in the mines but not completely out of them either.

And despite the quantity of remarkable work within Poetics of Restructuring, the even more impressive part of the biennale was its historical art exhibition, The Age of Coal.  A perfectly curated show, clear about the consistent impact that coal exploitation has had on modern industry and life, sensitive of the diversity of artistic responses to this very modern phenomenon, and careful to integrate aesthetics with historical perspectives as well as subtly highlight artistic criticism, the exhibition is truly a tour de force.  It treats all aspects of the coal era, from its affect on the environment, its impact on the working class, its relationship with politics and inter-class conflict, its connection with new technologies and knowledge, and ultimately how all these were translated through artistic production and positions.   If there was anything that was not perfect, it might be the Dark Matter section, which featured way too many coal piles by way too many different artists (Richard Long’s rectangular pile, Marcel Broodthaers’s coal pile, Bernar Venet’s coal pile, and David Hammond’s coal pile) to really resonate.  One pile would have sufficed and would have made more of an impact.

The third and last section of The Deep of the Modern is 17 Tons, the heritage section, which focuses on the impact that the closing of the mines had on cultural production in Europe.  A variety of organizations and groups collaborated, with each one contributing a smaller exhibition within the exhibition dealing with the legacy and collective memory of the coal-mining experience.

Overall, Manifesta 9 was well organized, thoughtful, careful, and dug deep into the issues surrounding the geographic, social, and economic context of the region, as well as the broader issues that co-exist, but are often ignored at major biennales in favour of “statements”, which are usually too exaggerated to really strike a chord and “mean” something.  In choosing locale to dictate its direction, Manifesta was able to tackle many subjects that are still intensely relevant but without the strident oppositional stance that sometimes make biennales seem farcical.

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