"The Deep of the Modern," Manifesta 9

Jonas Žakaitis

June 2, 2012
Manifesta, Pristina
June 2–September 30, 2012

OK, let’s start with a joke heard by the author on the way to the site of Manifesta 9. Two men were waiting for a bus together in the central station of Genk (Belgium), one of them equipped with a basket full of red apples.

“Here, have an apple,” the man said. “They said in the shop these were Bio apples, whatever that means. I think they come from a real pig.”

Belgian humor is seriously twisted. And there’s plenty of room for it at the defunct Waterschei coal mine where the biennial is taking place. This does not mean to say that Manifesta 9 is one twisted joke… but we’ll get back to that later.

So the show is titled “The Deep of the Modern” (to be read in a slow rumbling voice) and is curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina together with Dawn Ades and Katerina Gregos. It is all about coal. Or, to be more precise, coal is the semantic and morphological engine behind more or less everything in the exhibition. Of all the conceivable approaches to the material, quite predictably, political economy gets the ball most of the time. Genk is a town built for the sole purpose of getting the black stuff out of the ground. Early in the last century, after geologist Andre Dumont discovered significant amounts of coal lurking in the area, something like 60,000 people moved in from various parts of the world to work in and around the pits, building several large-scale mining complexes with the town’s modest amenities sprinkled around them. When heavy industry glaciers started moving out of Western Europe in the 1980s, Genk was left with a large useless hole right in the gut. The remaining fraction of the Waterschei mine (23,000 m2 of it) is an involuntary witness to this process of de-industrialization, a derelict but beautiful and proud building. After Manifesta 9, or so it tells me in the press pack, it “will be redeveloped as part of a master plan to create Thor park (is this name a jolly wink to the Germanic god of thunder, I wonder), a business and science complex focusing on innovation and knowledge.”

This archetypal kind of socio-econo-political development from industrialization to de-industrialization to post-industrial capitalism—and the corresponding forms of production, geographies, and distributions of resources—is what Manifesta’s contemporary art section, mostly on the third floor of the building, is about. Here’s my sketchy homemade taxonomy of what it contained: 1) works that try to enter the current realities of production and trade and add a twist to them, e.g., Rossella Biscotti’s The Conductor (2012), lead and copper acquired by the artist from a nuclear power plant in Lithuania and used for Carl Andre-like floor sculptures and the wiring that supplies electricity to the venue; or Antonio Vega Macotela’s Study of Exhaustion — The Equivalent of Silver (2011), a (failed) venture to export a “boleo” of cocoa leaves from Bolivian silver mines represented by a boleo-shaped piece of silver, roughly the amount of silver one miner gets out in a day; 2) works that dramatize various forms of labor (frequently using the tactic of reductio ad ridiculum), e.g., Tomaž Furlan’s Wear Series (2006–2012), an installation consisting of various dadaesque devices vaguely reminiscent of office equipment; or Ante Timmermans’s Make a Molehill out of a Mountain (of Work) (2012), shelves full of packed A4’s to be manually perforated throughout the show to make a hill of confetti; 3) works that present research carried out by artists: a subcategory too populous to elaborate upon here; 4) semi-documentaries: among several of them, the already classic Make it New John (2009) by Duncan Campbell, a film assembled around the DMC-12 sports car, a.k.a. the DeLorean (if machines can dream, then this film is a pretty close approximation to what that looks like); 5) automated works, e.g., Carlos Amorales’s Coal Drawing Machine (2012), aptly described by its title.

Downstairs is the historical section of Manifesta 9, mostly structured as an iconographic study of coal and coal mining within modern works of art. Although one part of it, inside of a custom-made, climate-controlled box-museum pretty much reverses the historical/contemporary division and offers something rather more promising than the reductionist looping reflection on the conditions of the possibilities of (art) production. (Yes, you heard that right). Carboniferous Landscape is one of my favorite rooms therein—a small collection of works that quickly overflows the measure of coal as a “theme.” Apart from other things, coal is a fossil, a dense black-box record of pre-historic plants, containing something like 300 million years inside, including skeletons of animals, floral patterns, and various other realities that were around way before the concept of representation. So to some extent it is not only about cultural “framing” and utilizing the material, but also about coal itself sculpting the human cognitive apparatus. For instance, the large landscape painting Steenkolenwoud in de oertijd (1945) was reverse-engineered by Jan Habex based on the traces of pre-historic flora stamped in fossils; or the series of Max Ernst prints (Histoire Naturelle, 1926) neighboring on a nearby wall—a hyperrealist flight of imagination merging natural and anthropomorphic forms into fossil-like surfaces. Next to these two works was a skull of an Iguanodon dinosaur flexing a petrified smile and most likely thinking way ahead of our metrical systems, in his slow and spacious geological time.

Rooms change quickly in this museological recital. From the pre-historical landscapes we are thrust into Stakhanovism, a room wallpapered with soviet propaganda dedicated to Alexey Stakhanov, a Stalinist hero who dug up 102 tons of coal in 5 hours and 45 minutes (?!) and made it to the cover of Time magazine in 1935. Turning back you enter the Aesthetics of Pollution, a study of post-Impressionistic painting through the lens of industrialized atmosphere, colors, and sunsets that only came into being because of the black matter blazing away in the furnaces. Despite a lot of apparent caesuras in this section, it doesn’t feel random at all. Sober empiricism throughout. It’s the kind of thing museums can do if they get into the groove.

The last bit of the show is dedicated to the heritage of coal mining, a further flight of stairs down, and it’s the weirdest part, somehow. Not that the things in it are wrong or boring, quite the contrary. A corner dedicated to Rocco Granata, the son of an Italian coal-miner from Limburg, who wrote a one-time hit song Marina (highly recommended). There’s also a selection of well-worn prayer mats of first-generation Turkish immigrants from the 1950s and 60s; models of underground pits used to teach mining techniques; and various other miner memorabilia. The weird part though is that all of these things, displayed in a generic and anemic way, are fenced from Mijndepot Waterschei, a full-blown and fully functioning museum assembled by former miners themselves back in 2004. Be sure to go there if you visit this Manifesta, and check out hundreds of mining tools, helmets, saint statues, a small train, and a 1:1 scale model of a coal shaft: great stuff that can get you really sooty. And on your way out have a locally brewed beer called Miner (it’s 9% strong and only 2, 60 EUR) in the bar still run on site by the miners themselves and bearing the name of Andre Dumont. I’m pretty sure this is the place where Belgian jokes come from.

Labor & Work, Nature & Ecology
Pollution & Toxicity, Geology

Jonas Žakaitis is a writer and Co-Director of Tulips & Roses, Brussels.

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June 2, 2012

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