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From carboniferous landscapes to an immaterial world.


Manifesta 9: The Deep of the Modern.


Aoife Desmond




Ryanair Flight P9PNTY leaves at 7.30 am Thursday May 31st from Dublin airport, heading to Eindhoven. Glimpses through the journey, hares at Dublin airport, a jet trail at arms length from the plane window, a horse and cart in a field in the suburbs of Eindhoven, a large bird of prey seen from the train journey to Maastrict. My Manifesta 9 companion Katherine Waugh has persuaded me to come, despite financial concerns somehow I have winged it here, to Manifesta 9 at the former Waterschei coal mine, Genk in the Limburg region of Belgium.


It is a while since I’ve been to one of these major biennales and the first time I have arrived early for the press preview. There is a buzz of excitement and cameras snap constantly on all sides, notebooks are out. The first wow factor of Manifesta 9 is the Waterschei building itself. In a semi derelict state, the sheer scale and complexity of the building is complemented by the careful and rigorous curation by Cuauhtémoc Medina (Mexico City) and his co-curators Katerina Gregos  (Greece) and Dawn Ades (Great Britain). The exhibition is split into three sections, mining heritage, art historical works and newly commissioned contemporary art. These three strands constantly inform and re-inform each other in surprising ways. Unusual for a biennale exhibition, pretty much the whole exhibition is contained within the one building but there are also a considerable number of  parallel events taking place throughout the Limburg region.


Within the three sections Heritage ‘17 Tons’, Historical ‘Age of Coal’ and Contemporary ‘Poetics of Restructuring’ there are cross references and subversions. In the Heritage section alongside the Mining Museum which is permanently housed in the building there is a piece of work by Lara Almarcequi entitled Wasteland (Genk) 2004-16. Presented as a slide projection and information booklet the artist has secured a hectare of wasteland in Genk for a period of 10 years to let nature take it’s course. Specifically for Manifesta 9 she has negotiated another 2 years with the city and plans to create a permanent intervention in the near future. The placement of this work in the heritage section is about an artist’s prior engagement with the location and a project which links to the ambitions of Manifesta 9 itself in engaging with a site and drawing out the potential and submerged histories intrinsic to this site. Another work in the heritage section that links to the contemporary is the presentation of a body of work by a 14 year old coal mining enthusiast Kevin Kaliski by Yann Tomaszewski. Kevin Kaliski is passionate about coal mining particularly about its’ architecture and engineering. Displayed here is a lego model of a coal mine, a selection of preparatory drawings and his blog. Tomaszewski who also has a film work presented in the Contemporary section two floors up, came across Kevin Kaliski’s blog when he was researching coal mining shaft towers. Kaliski’s  drawings are reminiscent of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s meticulous photographic documentation of industrial buildings which are included in the historical section one floor above. Tomaszewski had first chosen to display Kaliski’s work in place of his own at an art fair ‘56th Salon de Montrouge’ a ‘career booster’ for ‘emerging’ artists. This references the role of Manifesta itself as a showcase for young or emerging artists. There are several presentations of works in the historical section which are made by ‘non-professional artists’ or indeed have never been considered art objects before, such as a beautiful display of embroidered sayings on fabric which would have been in the domestic houses of the local Genk miners and show amongst other things the ethnic diversity of the miners. The Ashington Group is a group of amateur painters who were former miners from the Northumberland area in England. They came to prominence in the 30’s and 40’s. Their painting work is an incredible documentation of their everyday life. The Cinematek (Royal Belgian Film Archive) have a selection of projected films which are the first thing to meet you as you enter the heritage section. These films very much ground the section in the reality of the mining experience a reality which is re-enforced by the objects and artworks that comprise the whole of the section. Manifesta being a nomadic biennale which always takes a secondary city as its’ location, is concerned with a deep investigation of local contexts and global implications.


As the viewer moves one floor up to the Historical section a shift in perspective occurs. We are immersed in a survey style exhibition, if the first floor is evocative of a local museum display, the second floor despite the decayed architecture resembles a large art museum presentation. The coal mining experience is contextualised in the canon of art. This section explores ‘both the political and aesthetic impact of coal and the many ways these have been intertwined’ according to co-curator Dawn Ades. Richard Long’s Bolivian Coal Line 1992  is an apt inclusion, coal not usually exploited for its’ aesthetic qualities. Coal Sacks Ceiling  a homage to Marcel Duchamps’ Twelve Hundred Coal Sacks Suspended from the Ceiling over a Stove 1938 provides an uncanny mirror to the miners clothing suspended from the ceiling visible in the miners museum and the archive film work in the heritage section. From this point you can enter an inner gallery, air conditioned and formal taking you through a historical view of coal and modernism, ranging from realism to aesthetics of pollution and the underground as hell.  My favourite room within this, that I would almost describe as the black heart of the exhibition is ‘Carboniferous Landscapes’. Here Robert Smithson’s Nonsite, Site Uncertain 1968 sculpture composed of seven ascending steel L shapes containing cannel coal quietly occupies a corner.  Smithson’s  life’s work takes geological time as one of its’ themes. In this room we are reminded of the immense amount of time that it has taken coal to form. Carboniferous landscapes date from 299-359 million years ago. Our european coal is essentially a buried tropical lowland forest compressed over time. Max Ernst’s series of Histoire Naturelle 1926 prints are delicate works that use rubbings or ‘frottages’ to compose imagined surreal natural landscapes. Seemingly primevel in form they complement the selection of fossilised coal ferns (Dukinfield Henry Scott Studies in Fossil Botany 1908 Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences Library) in the glass case opposite and the painted imaginary carboniferous landscape Steenkolenwoud in de oertijd 1945 by Jan Habex which used adorn the reception hall at Waterschei mine.


Smithson’s legacy can also be read throughout the exhibition through his theory of site and nonsite. Here the gallery/exhibition space  is the nonsite to which sites are translated. Each of the artworks in a sense translate external linked realities back into the site of the exhibition which is in itself a nonsite or unreal space, composed as in Foucault’s text Of Other Spaces of superimposed chronological time. Cinema is perhaps the best example of external realities, fictions and timescapes creating a third space for the viewer. A trio of films  form a small subsection ‘docu-modernism’ of the historical section, these films from the 20’s and 30’s were made at a period when film was still defining itself. They are fluid works that can be read as both reportage and avant-garde. Coal Face 1935 by Alberto Calvalcanti incorporates verse by W.H. Auden and an experimental soundscape by Benjamin Britten. The other two films Kameradschaft 1931 by George Wilhelm Pabst and Misere au Borinage 1934 by Joris Ivens & Henri Storck also play with the task of documenting important social/ political events of the time. Misere au Borinage combines staged dramatised scenes with reportage shots of miners strikes. The voice of Auden is picked up by the more contemporary voice of Tony Harrison. A made for tv film directed by Richard Eyre in 1985 takes his poem ‘V’ and juxtaposes the poet’s live reading of the poem with film footage that fleshes out the poems imagery. If there was not already evident a melancholy strand to the dark history of coal, here the poet’s ruminations at his parent’s grave situated over a disused coal pit give full measure to the buried sadnesses and frustrations that are part and parcel of our relatively recent industrial past.


I tell myself I've got, say, 30 years.

At 75 this place will suit me fine.

I've never feared the grave but what I fear's

that great worked-out black hollow under mine.


Not train departure time, and not Town Hall

with the great white clock face I can see,

coal, that began, with no man here at all,

as 300 million-year-old plant debris.


Victory?  For vast, slow, coal-creating forces

that hew the body's seams to get the soul.

Will earth run out of her 'diurnal courses'

before repeating her creation of black coal?


(extracts from ‘V’ by Tony Harrison)


The Battle of Orgreave 2001 by Jeremy Deller & Mike Figgis restages the violent clash between British police and striking miners 17 years previous. This piece can be seen in the context of this exhibition as a bridge between the historical and the contemporary. As we shift to the contemporary section ‘The Poetics of Restructuring’ material labour starts to give way to immaterial labour. As we’ve journeyed through the exhibition we have been continually reminded that our modern world has been partially founded on a hard black dusty substance and that it has taken the sweat and strength of many men, women and children to wrestle it from the deep. As we stand above the hidden depths beneath us and look out windows at mountains which are in fact naturalised slack heaps we might temporarily connect with the immense effort and the intricacy of the infrastructure created to fuel modernity. If we come back to the present we are reminded of the intangibility of labour in our daily lives. Rarely do we grasp the processes undergone to provide our staple goods and energy sources. The sophistication of these processes and resources can in turn be used to create just so much cheap unnecessary tat. Waste becomes a theme within the contemporary section. Waste fabric forms Ni Haifeng’s Para-Production 2012 and melted waste plastic forms Plastic Reef 2008-2012 by Maarten Vanden Eynde. If in part the historical section has charted the rise of industrialism and modernism the contemporary section is reflecting on the organisation of workers, economics and labour  in both capitalist and communist regimes. Taking as its’ theme post-industrial capitalism the contemporary section is housed mainly on the top two floors of this former industrial building and collects together new works from 39 contemporary artists with very divergent positions and approaches.


One of the contemporary works that really stood out for me was The Capital of Accumulation 2010 by Raqs Media Collective. This 50 minute film work is composed of two simultaneous projections and is based on the Rosa Luxembourg text  The Accumulation of Capital 1913. This work links ideas within Luxembourg’s text through human migration, bird migration and the movement and flow of capitalism. This extract from an interview with Raqs Media Collective by Silvia Calvarese for Roots & Routes online visual culture studies journal helps to draw out some of the content of the film.


SC: Let’s talk about “The Capital of Accumulation”. It is possible to interpret this work according to several levels. It narrates about cities where adults prevail, such as Warsaw, Berlin, Bombay. What do these cities have in common? In this video the “physical” borders often become blur and leave space to the temporal ones.


Raqs: Cities erases their temporal depth as they fetishize historical moments through heritage. Warsaw, Berlin, Bombay/Mumbai are cities shaped by the twentieth century. They have borne the brunt and ridden the wings of the twentieth century. They constitute (for us) a momentary constellation formed by our desire to follow an eccentric journey through a reading of Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘The Accumulation of Capital’. We follow the consequences of the accumulation of capital between and across these three cities and our tracks play into obscure histories and enigmatic possibilities of flight. We are attempting here a lexicon that can speak to a conversation between places and their common futures.


In an adjacent room a slide projection work Kumartuli Printer, Notes on Labor Part 1 2010 by Praneet Soi is also set in India this time in an antiquated printing workshop in Kolkata (Calcutta). The slide series portrays a printer’s hands as he works an ancient  treadle press. As each slide progresses the images being printed are in fact documentation of the printers hands working, a circle of labour is revealed as is the working process between the artist and the printer.


Nearby Un moment d’éternité dans le passage du temps 2012 by Nicolas Kozakis & Raoul Vaneigem is a poetic 5 minute film piece set at the base of a holy mountain in Greece by the sea.  The film depicts a lone builder constructing a house and the text by Raoul Vaneigem unfolds urging for a new more humane vision of the world.  


Another evocative work is Sounds from Beneath 2010-11 by Mikhail Karikis & Uriel Orlow. This film seems to take place on an inhabitable lunar landscape that is in fact Snowdon, Kent. A choir of former miners vocalize the sounds of mining, recalling the rasps, hisses and rattles which are embedded in their acoustic memory. The artist Mikhail Karikis emerges from the blackened soil like a trickster or joker figure at the end, festooned with multicoloured balloons.


The artists’ or art’s role in our complex global economic system is a common thread through the contemporary works. Proposition pour un musée sur un ile déserte 2009 by Yann Tomaszewski features the artist as a present day explorer or mountaineer, colonizing new territory. Here the site of exploration is an island outside Paris that once housed the Renault Factory. We follow his ascents and descents through a familiar and prosaic landscape of rubble. He finally finds a location suitable to draw out the floorplans of a proposed museum.


As coal mining finished in Genk the Ford factory took over. Several works in the contemporary section reference Fordism and car manufacture most explicitly the Irish artist Duncan Campbell’s film Make it New John 2009 about the ill-fated Delorean car.


An artist whose work I managed to miss in the exhibition but have since watched online was Lina Selander. Her film works The Anteroom of the Real 2010-2011 and Lenin’s Lamp glows in the Peasant’s Hut 2011 are subtle complex works that combine a revisiting of the Chernobyl disaster and a ‘natural history’ of radioactive energy processes as described in this text by the curator Helena Holmberg:


“A series of pictures of plant fossils and drawings of how the original forests may have looked find their counterpart in nature images from Pripyat, a place where human history has come to an end and where nature has been left to heal itself.”


In this exhibition her work  links the viewer again to the carboniferous landscapes beneath but also to the contemporary and to the after of extreme industrialisation and energy production. As you stand at the top of the Waterschei mine building that houses Manifesta 9 a kind of positioning occurs between these diverse artistic perspectives. An overview which though fragmentary and possibly contradictory allows a brief glimpse of a complex system forming, dissolving, reforming, expanding, migrating and morphing like the ant colony in Oh!m1gas201 by Kuai Shen strategically placed in the formers directors office.


Aoife Desmond is an artist and writer based in Dublin.




Exterior of Manifesta 9 Building, Former Coal Mine of Waterschei, Photo: Kristof Vrancken

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Interior of Manifesta 9 Building,  Former Coal Mine of Waterschei, Sint Barbara Hall,

Photo: Kristof Vrancken

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Lara Almarcegui, Wasteland (Genk), 2004-2016. More than 1 hectare of wasteland in public space. A project in collaboration with FLACC and the City of Genk. Acknowledgments: Wim Dries (City of Genk), Frans Van Roy, Lucas Pellens, Ludo Thys, Xavier Huygen, Eva González-Sancho, Theo Tegelaers, Acción Cultural Española (AC/E) and the Ministry of Housing and Construction that accomplished the first waste lands in the harbour of Rotterdam. © the artist.

Het zwarte goud van de `Kempen 1951 from The Mines. 14 Films on the Belgian Coal Mines, 2012. DVD box published by Cinematek Brussels, 185 min. Collection: Royal Belgian Film Archive, Brussels. All rights of the producers and of the owners of the works reproduced reserved.


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Raqs Media Collective, The Capital of Accumulation, 2010. Two synchronized video projections with sound, 50 min. Supported by: Goethe Institut, Warsaw. Courtesy: Frith Street Gallery, London. © the artists.



Lina Selander, Lenin’s Lamp Glows in the Peasant’s Hut, 2011. HD video, 23 min, vitrine with 18 uranium plates; metal plaque, 50 x 90cm. Supported by: IASPIS Sweden.© the artist.




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Mikhail Karikis & Uriel Orlow, Sounds from Beneath, 2010-2011. Project by Karikis, video by Karikis & Orlow. Video/DVD, 7 min. Supported by: Arts Council England, the University of Westminster. © the artists.




Edward Burtynsky, China:Manufacturing, 2005. Selection of eight photographs, variable dimensions. Supported by: Galeria Toni Tàpies, Barcelona. Courtesy: Galeria Toni Tàpies, Barcelona, Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto, Stefan Röpke Gallery, Köln.© the artist.

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Praneet Soi, Kumartuli Printer,Notes on Labor Part 1, 2010. Slide Show. Supported by: Mondriaan Fund, Amsterdam, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi. Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, Gallery Martin Van Zomeren, Amsterdam. © the artist.

Yan Tomaszewski, Proposition pour un musée sur une île déserte, 2009. HD video, 11 min. 44 sec. Supported by: Cultural service of the Polish Embassy in Belgium. © the artist.