Mine Reading

Kate Sutton at the opening of Manifesta 9

Left: Manifesta chief curator Cuauhtémoc Medina. Right: Andre Dumont mine. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

THE ROAMING BIENNIAL MANIFESTA makes a point of dwelling on peripheries, from the oft-overlooked international hub Luxembourg in 1998 to the Basque borders of Donostia-San Sebastian in 2004 to the contested territories of Nicosia (so contentious, in fact, that Manifesta 6, in 2006, had to be canceled). This year, instead of mucking around in “The Contemporary and Its Discontents” (à la insert-biennial-here), Manifesta 9 delves into what fueled Modernism to begin with: coal. Titled “The Deep of the Modern,” the sprawling three-part exhibition uses the coal mine as a vantage point from which to understand current socioeconomic “restructurings.” Chief curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, together with cocurators Katerina Gregos and Dawn Ades, selected the Belgian province of Limburg, “a mini European Union” also known as “Euregio-Meuse-Rhine.” The region has spent much of this century heavily dependent on coal production, but, with the last mine closing in 1992, Limburg is now eager to transition to new technology. Once a kind of Emerald City for coal miners, the garden city of Genk provides the ideal venue with its massive, Art Deco–style André Dumont mine.

While we missed last Thursday morning’s opening activities, we arrived in Genk just in time for that night’s welcome party at the mine, hosted by the Armory Show, ARCO, and Art Cologne. The fairs en masse were supposed to impress with their solidarity, but the coalition effort made the event feel a little League of Their Own. “I forgot to RSVP,” a young curator confessed, shuffling through her printouts. “Don’t worry,” SculptureCenter’s Mary Ceruti assured her. “I think anyone who makes the journey to Genk is invited, de facto.”

Left: Dealers Adrian Notz and Pamela Echeverria. Right: Curator Sheena Wagstaff, chairman of the department of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum, and Manifesta cocurator Dawn Ades.

At the reception, a network of seating arrangements, drink tables, and multimedia booths had been fashioned from car parts by 2012 Architects & REFUNC, creating conversation nooks for artists and curators such as Sheena Wagstaff, Victor Misiano, and Duncan Campbell. The members of IRWIN may espouse radical politics, but they prefer their furniture conservative, and opted for a more traditional-looking table with curator Iara Boubnova and Cabaret Voltaire’s Adrian Notz. That night, Z33 was hosting an afterparty in its exhibition space in the neighboring town of Hasselt, but the pouring rain and a general reticence kept guests huddled in drunken clumps around the columns in the reception area. “A little bit like a metro station at midnight, no?” artist Carlos Amorales suggested, before spearheading an exodus to Carbon, the Limburg-chic hotel opposite the train station.

The next morning, we boarded the bus to Waterschei for the exhibition’s official opening. The biennial’s headquarters were housed in the Casino Modern, home to the FLACC workplace for visual artists. The short walk from FLACC to the mine follows Dumont Street, where a row of two-story town houses plays temporary host to quirky parallel events, such as the Monument for the Unknown Trucker and the more festive Man&Fiesta. The program’s foldout map contains helpful commentary along the lines of “Get a Decent Haircut Here!” and “Used to Be a Hat Shop.”

The staggering André Dumont mine adapted easily to the exhibition, which was broken into three parts: Heritage, Historical, and Contemporary. Notz had advised me to start with the Heritage section, “17 Tons,” a selection of archival materials telling the social history of mining (albeit in a slightly fetishized format). Curator Elisabeth Lebovici and I traded “here we go again” glances over the opening display of Turkish prayer rugs, but our skepticism soon melted into genuine appreciation, as we perused the displays of employee logbooks, embroidered dish towels, and the collected memorabilia on a Limburg legend: one-hit wonder Rocco Granata, the miner’s kid who made it big.

Left: Whitechapel's Kirsty Ogg, artist Duncan Campbell, and the Henry Moore Institute's Lisa Le Feurve. Right: Curator Elisabeth Lebovici.

True to the spirit of Manifesta, the objects did not stop at Belgium’s borders. One whole room was dedicated to the Ashington Art Group, whose history has been memorialized in a recent play “from the writer of Billy Elliot.” “If you haven’t seen it, you must,” urged a woman from a British mining museum. “It’s quite a laugh!” Possibly more entertaining was the annotated checklist from a 1936 Ashington exhibition, which featured paintings such as Air Raid and The Driller–Coal Face. Handwritten margin notes evaluated the work on a scale of “good” to “jolly good,” with the occasional “something different” (Oliver Kilbourn’s Northumbrian Landscape) or “dreadful” (Arthur Whinnom’s Total Wreck). A painting called Gas Mask was summarily dismissed as “the worst in the exhibition.”

Taking a break for a buffet lunch, I caught up with curators Claire Staebler, Krist Gruijthuijsen, and Ruba Katrib, who filled me in on the Hasselt party (“You didn’t miss much. The same people were there, the music was loud, and dinner was soup and pommes frites.”) When the waitress came by with a tray boasting local fruit beer, I tried my luck with a purply one. According to Ana Torfs’s coal-based colors on view upstairs, the beverage’s exact shade would have been somewhere between fuschin and cochineal, but the flavor was pretty much cough syrup and shoe leather.

After lunch, I toured “The Age of Coal,” which took over the second floor’s rough industrial spaces with historical works by Marcel Broodthaers, Christian Boltanski, and David Hammons. Richard Long’s Bolivian Coal Line made a stunning sweep of the central arcade, but the real showstoppers were the documentary films from Alberto Cavalcanti, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, and especially Joris Ivens & Henri Storck (whose jaw-dropping 1934 Misère au Borinage was reenacted with popsicle sticks in a video by Erik van Lieshout.).

Left: SculptureCenter's Ruba Katrib and Mary Ceruti. Right: Artist Ni Haifeng.

Those who dared to cross under the restaging of Marcel Duchamp’s Coal Sacks Ceiling were treated to a special air-conditioned filial, rife with works by Robert Smithson, Max Ernst, and Gustav Klutsis. Awed visitors paused at the altar of Charles Demuth’s iconic 1921 Incense of a New Cathedral and perused Olivier Bevierre’s stitched strips of photographs of miners at work. The true delight of the section, however, was the 1940 Stakhanovite fairy tale Svetlyi Put’, in which the fairy godmother leads her Soviet Cinderella to gainful employment, not a glass slipper.

The contemporary component, “Poetics of Restructuring,” concentrated mainly on proposing alternative economies, whether that be through Ni Haifeng’s Para-Production (a factory model in which pieces of discarded fabric were sewn into a massive tapestry) or Jota Izquierdo’s collection of faux commodities (e.g., PRIBA and PRLDA handbags, colognes like Marco Polo Club). Maryam Jafri’s film Avalon appraises the fetish clothing industry, from a Southeast Asian leather supplier to a naked man chained to a bathroom wall, the ball gag in his mouth doubling as a toilet paper holder. “Being hip is better than being persecuted,” the voice-over offers.

Speaking of hip, Kuai Shen’s ant farm proposes that ants “invented the turntable before we did.” Sensors feed a digital transcription of the insects’ movements to two record players, creating a kind of sonic record of their labor. Dealer Pamela Echeverria watched the needle scratch forward then jerk back: “It moves like revolution.” I’m not sure Shen actually caught what she said, but he smiled winningly.

Left: A view of the reception area. Right: Ante Timmermans, Make a Molehill out of a Mountain (of Work), 2012.