In the 1950s, Greek labourer Spyros Roumeliotiso, like so many other southern Europeans, travelled to Genk to work in the coal mines. In his pocket was a photo – or rather, half a photo. He and his wife had torn apart a portrait of the two of them. He had the half with her image, and, back in Greece, she kept the half with his. When they were reunited in Genk, they sewed the two pieces of the photo back together with yarn.
This creased and stained photograph, taken in 1952 and no larger than a few square centimetres, came from the son of those immigrants, who still lives in Genk. When he saw the little photo of his parents in its grand and dignified setting at the Manifesta biennial inside a former mine site in his own city, he broke down in tears.
There are many examples of how the Manifesta biennial can leave a lasting impression on a city and its residents, but it’s difficult to find one more relevant than that when it comes to Genk. Manifesta, the only European arts biennial that travels to different cities, chose Genk not despite its coal-mining heritage but specifically because of it.
What opened earlier this month in Genk is Manifesta 9, the latest edition of one of the top three contemporary arts exhibitions in Europe – the other two being the Venice biennial and the five-yearly Documenta in Kassel, Germany (which is also taking place now). Manifesta, however, is the only one that is nomadic; it is staged in a different city every two years, a “pop-up” biennial, if you will.
This makes Manifesta an event that is ever-changing and dynamic – never allowed to fall into a pattern – but it also comes with the difficult challenge of attracting new visitors with every edition. "Manifesta all has to happen in a single moment,” comments this edition’s chief curator Cuauhtémoc Medina. “Unlike in Venice, Istanbul or São Paulo, there is no audience growing around it.”
Medina is an art historian from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City and worked on Manifesta with two co-curators – Dawn Ades of the British Academy and Katerina Gregos, based in Brussels. Manifesta recruits a completely new curatorial team for each edition, contributing even more to its great diversity in form and expression.
What sets Manifesta further apart from its contemporaries is its geo-political, socio-economic focus. The Amsterdam-based foundation was established in 1996 to specifically address the questions of a European identity. “We investigate political climate, cultural identity, geo-politics, technology and the status of Europe itself,” explains Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen. “We closely watch social and political developments throughout Europe.”
In other words, Manifesta, unlike similar initiatives, is not a platform to explore the status of contemporary art; it’s a platform to explore the status of Europe through contemporary art. Having been previously staged in cities like Rotterdam, Murcia and Ljubljana, the event avoids the main economic and cultural centres to immerse itself in areas that are current examples of a Europe challenged by expansion, economic urgencies and an industrial landscape in upheaval. Which took them right to the city of Genk.
Genk, in central Limburg province, was a tiny farming village in the early part of the 20th century, its agriculture centred on mills and grain (and beer). Then, in 1901, Belgian geologist André Dumont hit coal 541 metres under the heathland. Efforts had been made previously to reach the coal deposits in Limburg, but it is buried so deep, those efforts had proven futile.
And so Limburg officially entered the coal mining industry quite late in the game, opening its first mine in 1917. Six would follow, and the area would become famous for coal, rather than grain.
The mines shut down just 70 years later, the last – Winterslag, now converted to the multi-purpose centre called C-Mine – closing for good in 1988. Genk in fact made the industrial transition less painfully than other European cities; it is still a centre of manufacturing and technology development, led by Ford Genk. Cities and/or regions bid to host Manifesta, and, along with a financial investment, must fit in with the biennial’s profile. “The proposal was in response to the very particular history and context of the city of Genk and of the wider region,” explains Manifesta co-curator Katerina Gregos. “Genk is one of the three most important industrial regions in Flanders and forms a kind of general access to the southern part of Belgium – the former coal mining and steel works in the Borinage – and connects to the Aachen region in Germany and also symbolically to Britain. So that whole region was the industrial heartland of Europe prior to the process of de-industrialisation that happened since the 1960s onwards.”
Manifesta was intrigued, then, by Limburg’s place in the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion, one of the many cross-border regions in Europe that cooperate with each other in a variety of areas, such as commerce and trade. The Belgian province of Liège, the German-speaking part of Belgium, Germany’s Aachen region and the southern section of the Dutch province of Limburg make up the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion, which encompasses three languages.
Manifesta sees Limburg as a sort of mini version of the European Union, partly due to its place in the Euroregion and partly due to its situation where three countries come together. But possibly most compelling is its role in the formation of the EU itself. Limburg lies at the centre of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a treaty between France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux, which was a direct predecessor of the EU.
If you are looking for a scale model of the effects of a changing political, industrial, cultural and social landscape in the EU, look no further than Limburg. “The exhibition takes its cue from this rich period of mining history,” says Gregos, “but also from the shifting centres of industrial production and the shifting geographies of the industrial product.”
The Manifesta exhibition is housed in its entirety inside the main building of the old Waterschei mine, one of Genk’s three coal mine sites. Genk has preserved many of the buildings of its former mining sites as protected heritage. While most of the interior walls of the 24,000 square-metre Waterschei have been torn down, the shell of the imposing Art Deco building remains.
It is within this shell, once home to offices, showers, lockers and vast amounts of equipment, that 39 contemporary artists – most of whom are European or live in Europe – were asked to stage existing work or create entirely new ones. The curators set out in search of artists that were producing work in the areas of their focus, including “the restructuring of the economic system, which has repercussions both in materials and in humans,” says Gregos. “Social changes, the demise of the welfare state, the changing nature of labour, the myth of clean labour. We chose artists who have a long-term engagement with these ideas.”
Many of the artists spent months researching the area and the site itself, all the while gazing across the Waterschei’s once-flat heathland at the slagheaps – hills created in the landscape out of rubble from under the earth, now planted with foliage and seemingly natural. Almost like planned works of natural art.
This year, there are two firsts in the history of Manifesta: For the first time, the entire exhibition is taking place in one single location. This was decided in order to best utilise the space and keep all the installations in the context of the industrial setting. (And it’s a blessing for those who want to see the entire exhibition.)
The tagline for Manifesta 9 is The Deep of the Modern, a reference to the physical depth of coal mining and the traces that defunct industry leaves on contemporary society. In order to sufficiently bridge the past to the present, curators decided to include a historical art section, another first for Manifesta. Housed inside a climate-controlled venue built inside the Waterschei, the collection includes paintings, photography and film from the late 18th to the 21st century that illustrate how industry, and especially coal, influenced the work of artists and filmmakers, aesthetically, in terms of content and in the making of propaganda.
Most visitors will gravitate towards Manifesta’s most massive installation first. Ni Haifeng’s “Para-Production” is made up of quite literally a mountain of discarded black fabric direct from mass-manufacturing in China. The Chinese artist, who lives in Amsterdam, has been adding to this mountain, which also consists of a giant quilt of pieces of fabric sewn together, for several years. The black, which indeed resembles a mountain of coal, brings the sheer amount of fabric waste by-product into sharp focus, while the motley quilt is Ni’s suggestion that “useful” is subjective.
You might find Carlos Amorales’ nearby “Coal Drawing Machine” more refined – an irony, considering that the Mexican artist wants to emphasise that coal has long been considered too crude to use in the creation of art. His machine draws randomly beautiful patterns onto rolls of white butcher paper, which are then torn off and hung up nearby.
Edward Burtynsky, a photographer and filmmaker whose 2006 movie Manufactured Landscapes opened the world’s eyes to the environmental and cultural effects of mass production in China, shows a selection of photographs of the spectacular changes taking place in that country, where one can drive for hours past rows and rows of industrial buildings and workers’ houses, often eerily ordered and symmetrical.
“There’s a big difference,” says Gregos, “with how we perceive labour today in Western Europe and what is happening in China and other parts of the east. China still gets 50% of its energy from coal, but there is a decrease in visibility. When we use the term post-industrialism, we have to tread with caution. China is certainly not post-industrial, and coal is not dead and buried.”
Dutch historian Johan Pijnappel and Dutch artist Irma Boom, famous for her handmade books, have built an installation around their famous work The Think Book, 1996-1896. The book is a kind of commemorative historical document made for the Dutch holding company SHV, which grew from a coalition of eight family-owned coal companies more than 100 years ago. Along with other documentation and a soundscape of interviews, pages of questions lay atop a boardroom table: How are you, and why? Why did you get up this morning? Are you short of something? Who is Free? Regardless whether or not you are familiar with The Think Book, some of the questions will keep you pondering for hours (trust me).
Flemish artist Ana Torfs drew her inspiration for the colourful installation “[…]STAIN[…]” from the 1910 catalogue of the Bayer’s Dye Factory. Research taught her that many big corporations today, including chemical companies and pharmaceutical giants (like Bayer), began as producers of synthetic dyes, derived from coal.
The historical section of Manifesta, meanwhile, offers some gems of both painting and photography. One of my favourites is a photo montage put together by 19th-century Belgian photographer Olivier Bevierre, who shot images of men working in the mines and then stacked them vertically to accentuate how deep the mines were. British artist Henry Moore’s “Four Studies of Miners at the Coalface” does something similar in a visually complex use of pencil, crayon, watercolour and ink, though the effect emphasises more the cramped environment. The miners are like moles curled up under the ground.
American painter Charles Demuth’s “Incense of a New Church” (1921) is an Art Deco precursor, with curvaceous curls of smoke easing out of a steel foundry. It’s a sexy kind of image, but also dangerous – like an industrial femme fatale.
“Au pays noir” from 1893 is a rare example of a landscape work devoid of people by Brussels artist Contantin Meunier. A superb example of the influence of industry on landscape painting, it was found in storage at the Musée d’ Orsay in Paris.
Genk is a city of about 65,000 people – and 85 nationalities. It’s a striking number, and it’s because of coal. Not enough Belgians wanted to work in the Limburg mines, so foreigners were recruited from around Europe. In the early years, most came from Central Europe and later, in the 1950s, from Italy, Greece and Spain. The final wave of migrants came from Northern Africa and Turkey.
And they brought their cultures with them. “There are 32 languages being spoken in Genk right now,” says Gregos, who herself hails from Greece. “I did a tour recently with about 50 Greeks from Genk, all second generation. They speak Dutch and Greek. It’s a really multi-cultural society, considering that it’s a small city.”
A third section of Manifesta, dubbed “17 Tons”, is dedicated to the heritage of the miners, including the tens of thousands of immigrants who poured into Limburg throughout the 20th century. This is where you’ll find that photo of Mr Roumeliotiso and his wife and a number of other moving installations, such as a huge collection of prayer rugs – the one item that every Turkish immigrant brought with him – and dozens of sculptures by former Spanish miner Manuel Durán, who carves the heads of his fellow labourers out of a potato pulp mixture that he makes himself.
Art events across Flanders these days are very big on emphasising that they hope to leave impressions long after the art is gone. What Gregos sees for Manifesta is that organisations that now struggle for recognition will become star players in the arts and heritage scene.
She mentions the Mine Depot, which is run by former miners and maintains a permanent exhibition and conducts tours of some of the old shafts of the Waterschei site. “People in the contemporary art world tend to colonise locations and then disappear without a trace,” says Gregos. Manifesta is invested in helping the Mine Depot and other local heritage organisations with the representation of their existing collections. “The traces that we hope to leave behind are the knowledge and experience we bring as curators so that other organisations can better profile themselves. There’s a limit to what an exhibition can do, and I think what we are doing is raising awareness of this very important heritage.”
Manifesta 9 is most rewarding if you do a bit of homework first or take a tour with one of the “art mediators”. Tours are available daily, no need to reserve unless you are with a large group. Pick up a copy of the Manifesta newspaper at tourist offices and cultural centres around Flanders and/or read the website for historical information to enrich your experience
Although Manifesta 9 takes place all in one venue (for the first time in its history), “the parallel events” will take you across Limburg and over the border to Wallonia, Germany and the Netherlands. All the areas of the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion are climbing aboard the Manifesta train for a total of more than 80 arts- and heritage-related events. One of the most high-profile Manifesta parallels is Hotel de Inmigrantes: Cosmopolitan Stranger, a project bringing together 40 international artists and curated by Koen Vanmechelen, world famous for his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. Vanmechelen brought the artists to his studio and required them to live and work like illegal immigrants during the first week of June. The exhibition in Hasselt now follows, with each artist’s response. It’s part of an international series of projects based on the Immigrant’s Hotel, a complex of buildings in the port of Buenos Aires, where immigrants could stay after their arrival in Argentina.