MANIFESTA 9 in Genk (Belgium)
In Articles | Installation Art7 June 2012
ince the Venice Biennial was founded in 1895, the Artist’s Republic has sought internationalism. Documenta followed in Kassel, Germany, after World War II, to be organized every four (and later five) years. In 1967, Paris offered the Biennale des Jeunes, a multicolored alternative, and Havana followed suit with the Biennial of Cuba. MANIFESTA is, so to say, the offspring of the Paris Biennial, but a nomad, changing places from Rotterdam (Netherlands) in 1996 to Luxembourg, Ljubljana (Slovenia), Frankfurt (Germany), San Sebastian (Spain), Trentino (Italy), Murcia (Spain) and its current home in Genk, Belgium. Supported by a European foundation, MANIFESTA is the Ambassador for Visual Arts of the European Commission since 2008.
The places determine exhibition concepts. In Genk, the MANIFESTA site is the ruinous remains of a coalmine – the Waterschei. The director Hedwig Fijen and the Curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, prepared the concept of this big show, and the 100 artists they invited have plunged into historic episodes of coal mining in the Limburg province of Belgium between 1910 and 1987. Their exhibition space was once the central service building of the biggest mine, consisting of 23,000 square meters distributed on four floors that have been radically cleared of the workers´ and employee’s furniture.
Films, photographs and documents prompt the visitor to remember exhausting labor and accidents of coal mining along with strikes called by the miners. About 50 prayer mats of the first generation of Turkish immigrants are a spectacular contribution. Coal is the leitmotiv of the whole exhibition, and the most imposing homage to art history is certainly Ubac’s remake of the Grotto by Marcel Duchamp. This work was first exhibited at the Exposition internationale du Surréalisme in Paris 1938, when 1,200 coal bags were hung from the ceiling and lit by a brazier. There are other historical “coal works” on view by Bernar Venet, Richard Long and Marcel Broodthaers.
Though coal mining in some parts of the world is still an ongoing industrial activity, coal never touches the hands of consumers in most countries. Stories about coal are therefore memories bordering on nostalgia. Miners can be elevated to the state of heroes or even Angels with Dirty Faces: Igor Grubic of Zagreb added white chalk wings to six big photographs of seated workers, realized between 2004 and 2006. David Hammons´ spacious environment Closing the Blue Train of 1989, recalls the heroic conquest of the American West with a tiny electric train that passes by dark silhouettes and through a tunnel under a big coal mountain. And there is the monstrous, pathetic travesty of Socialist Realism: a collaborative painting by the artists of IRWIN group from Ljubljana entitled Red Districts. This work of 1987 is made of blood, coal, oil, wood, marble, aluminum, gold, iron and glass.
The huge halls of the art deco building and the raw uneven cement walls have driven the video artists into their black boxes and all those in need of intimate, protected white boxes for delicate paintings or sculptures to retire. Installations prevail. The masterpiece of the show is one of the biggest “stage sets” I ever saw – produced by a Chinese artist, Ni Haifeng, who now lives in Amsterdam. He was not inspired by coal as a material, but by its mass production, and transformed the biggest hall into a textile factory where a Para-Production continues to take place at about 30 sewing machines on separate small tables in a production line which is pushed to one side by a huge heap of textile debris. Hundreds of rags in all colors and patterns are sewn together to make a stage curtain which hangs over the pile of fabric like a cataract.
This “Goliath” of this piece is confronted by a “David,” an installation showing an ant colony struggling through glass cubes and tubes, cutting leaves and transporting the parts, and all their noises are amplified and played on two vinyl record players. Kuai Shen from Ecuador developed this installation in 2011. A cohort of coal pieces has an opaque order. Cohorts of men, workers or soldiers are different: China:Manufacturing is the title of 8 photographs by Toronto-based artist Edward Burtynsky who shows workers in a chicken processing plant or in other strongly ordered formations in a country of many, many people. But machines replace man power: Carlos Amorales from Mexico City shows a big plotter printer which, following a digital program, continually produces big charcoal drawings on paper with varied ornamental patterns.
Then imagine you enter a ruinous gangway connecting two buildings; you breathe the “smell of failure,” you hear more and more the rhythmic sounds of hammers on anvils – and you don´t see them. The Columbian Oswaldo Macia has invented this auditory olfactory composition as an homage to the history of Flamenco. And it has become an integral part of the building in its actual state.
This exhibition in this building in this coal mine area is a hazardous adventure justified by the nomadic character of MANIFESTA. It is able to clearly represent some contemporary cultural attitudes of young artists the world over: reacting against the white box and capitalist strategies (see the black box audio piece The Decapitation of Money by Goldin and Senneby). It also reflects ethical positions (see Maryam Jafri`s video Avalon) and of historicity. It is certainly not just another exhibition about art. Do come and see!
MANIFESTA 9, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art, is on view between June 2 and September 30, 2012 in Genk, Limburg, Belgium http://www.manifesta9.org, http://www.catalog.manifesta9.org
Writing Credits: Wolfgang Becker is the Former Founding Director of the Ludwig Forum for International Art in Aachen, Germany. Becker has curated important solo exhibitions of Roy Lichtenstein, Duane Hanson, Luciano Fabro, A. R. Penck, Georg Baselitz, On Kawara, Imi Knoebel, Katharina Fritsch, Frédéric Bruly-Bouabré, Chéri Samba, Richard Tuttle, Nan Goldin, Christian Boltanski, Keith Haring and others. A distinguished critic and writer, Becker became a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in Paris in 1990.
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