Ni Haifeng, Para-production, 2008–12, textile shreds, sewing machines. Installation view, Waterschei Mine, Genk, Belgium, 2012. Photo: Kristof Vrancken.

Ni Haifeng, Para-production, 2008–12, textile shreds, sewing machines. Installation view, Waterschei Mine, Genk, Belgium, 2012. Photo: Kristof Vrancken.

Manifesta 9

Ni Haifeng, Para-production, 2008–12, textile shreds, sewing machines. Installation view, Waterschei Mine, Genk, Belgium, 2012. Photo: Kristof Vrancken.

IN AN ERA when institutions from Dia:Beacon to Tate Modern are housed in industrial buildings, one might have found it unremarkable that the most recent edition of the itinerant biennial Manifesta took place in the headquarters of a disused mine in Belgium. Indeed, we are all too accustomed to seeing such spaces transformed into art venues and accepting the flattening of their history that accompanies such repurposing. In this case, however, curator Cuauhtémoc Medina (with Dawn Ades and Katerina Gregos) directly confronted the site’s industrial legacy, titling the show “The Deep of the Modern” and focusing much of its content on what Ades describes as the “impact of coal on the modern sensibility and its aftermath.” The hulking Art Deco industrial cathedral of the Waterschei mine itself thus strongly inflected one’s reception of the exhibition, and the cumulative effect of Medina’s curatorial strategy was to posit mining as central to the history of modernity—as well as, of course, to this area of Belgium.

An educational and engrossing historical mini-exhibition on the first floor was made up largely of archival material, including films made for local coal mines, displays of workers’ logbooks, documentation of a 1966 strike at a nearby colliery, and the prayer mats of Muslim immigrants who arrived in the area in the 1950s. Considered in conjunction with the film Coal Face (1935), a quasi documentary by the Brazilian director Alberto Cavalcanti featuring a voice-over by W. H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten, the attention given to mining’s heritage functioned as a corrective to the kind of neoliberal revisionism that has relegated mining to the sidelines of history. It has become increasingly hard to conceive of mining’s importance to class belonging as well as regional and national identities—and easy to forget that more than 40 percent of the world’s electricity is still made by burning coal.

The second floor was largely devoted to coal as an unlikely but potent influence on the history of art. Passing under a re-creation of the twelve hundred coal sacks that Marcel Duchamp suspended from the ceiling at the 1938 “Exposition internationale du surréalisme,” visitors entered an air-conditioned room where many of the older works were thematically arranged. “Aesthetics of Pollution” featured Charles Demuth’s celebratory reinterpretation of the smoke from factory chimneys in Incense of a New Church, 1921, and Constantin Meunier’s bleak depiction of a Belgian mining town, Au Pays noir (In the Black Country), ca. 1893. John Martin’s early-nineteenth-century mezzotints illustrating Paradise Lost made up part of the grouping “Underground as Hell,” while “Carboniferous Landscape” featured a painting commissioned for the Waterschei building itself: Jan Habex’s Steenkolenwoud in de oertijd (Coal Forests in Carboniferous Landscape), 1945. But a real conflict emerged when these various deployments of coal in a multitude of symbolic, metaphoric, economic, aesthetic, and political discourses collided with the far looser remit of the section devoted to contemporary art, titled “Poetics of Restructuring.” How does one reconcile the tension, for example, between a room of Stakhanovite posters and documents and one of the show’s most prominent contemporary artworks—a huge patchwork quilt titled Para-production, 2008–12, by Ni Haifeng? Made with leftover scraps from China’s textile factories, this work filled a cavernous space, leaving one with a vertiginous sense of redundancy that stood in sharp contrast to the practical and symbolic consequentiality of Stakhanov’s record-breaking productivity.

The show’s presentation of the miner as the emblematic laborer of industrial modernism made it impossible not to consider the contemporary artist, by analogy, as the figurehead of the current post-Fordist economy, creating an unavoidable sense of bathos: We used to make coal; now we make contemporary art. But this claim was not explicitly at stake in the show; rather, it was addressed so indirectly and awkwardly that contemporary art itself began to feel like a problematic symptom of postindustrial aimlessness, if not—as unintentionally choreographed here—the problem itself. Because the grandeur of the site chimed so well with the celebration of the coal miner and everything he stands for, one was confronted with the question of what contemporary art can say about the politics of labor if it literally occupies an industrial ruin that epitomizes this former greatness.

The resulting sense of loss even affected works engaged in polemical historiography—among them a tale of the failure of the DeLorean car factory in Duncan Campbell’s Make It New John, 2009; Raqs Media Collective’s exploration of the material and immaterial afterlives of Rosa Luxemburg in The Capital of Accumulation, 2010; and Marge Monko’s Nora’s Sisters, 2009, in which excerpts from a play by Elfriede Jelinek accompany 1920s photographs of women in an Estonian factory. Medina is aware of the dangers of nostalgia here (it is a keynote of his catalogue essay), but it nevertheless suffused many of the works on view, perhaps most plaintively Nemanja Cvijanovi´c’s Monument to the Memory of the Idea of the Internationale, 2010–12, for which a tiny music box was miked up to broadcast the legendary workers’ anthem around the site.

The difficulties created by the partiality of both the setting and the exhibition are perhaps best illuminated in a comment, quoted in the catalogue, by Magdalena Jitrik. Her colorful, seductive abstractions were among the more interesting works in the show, resonating within the space in spite of the obscurity of their alleged connection with the exchange between Leon Trotsky and Victor Serge. She wonders whether “art as a system of thought might not be able to replace political economy.” In the context of this show, almost everything about contemporary art came to seem a betrayal of the miners’ hopes and desires, of their labor and their politics. We need a new canary in the deep of the modern.

Alexander Scrimgeour is a writer, translator, and editor based in London.