In the early 1990s fifteen European arts councils endeavoured on a nomadic ‘pop-up biennial' which took its distance with conventional strongholds of official culture in order to investigate the social or economical issues of the respective sites. The title of this year's Manifesta 9: ‘The Deep of the Modern' refers literally and metaphorically to the abysses beneath the thin layer of modernity, as exemplified by the coal mining industry and its consequences.
No one would dare to impose any restrictions on what an exhibition can be - as long as it meets one crucial requirement: it has to be site-specific. Although this malleable term has been used quite excessively during the last couple of years, Manifesta 9 lives up to it in a comprehensive and concrete manner by taking the coal mining region of Limburg in north eastern Belgium as reference point.
A floor piece from Robert Smithson's series of ‘non-sites' is part and epitome of this edition of Manifesta. Those ‘non-sites' comprise the relationship between the exhibiting frame and the exhibited object. ‘Site' means the outdoors where the artists intervene, ‘non-site' is the shape of this space within the exhibition context. In order to visualize the shift from the initial location to its interior representation, Smithson would arrange found material - in this particular case coal - within industrially manufactured metal containers, thus amalgamating amorphous with crystalline structures to present unwieldy raw material under institutional conditions. This transformation of the exhibit by the exhibition was topical among Smithson's ‘earth art'-peers, the most prominent being Richard Long, who on this occasion created his accustomed floor piece out of coal instead of limestone, a material he usually favours.
Spreading over four floors of a former mine's main building, the show unfolds in front of the elegantly wasted backdrop of a 1924 built art-deco structure. The issue of the mining industry's contribution to the creation and destruction of culture and nature is addressed from three angles. The exhibition starts with an outline of the different ways the region's heritage is preserved since the shut-down of the mines in the second half of the 20th century. Here the alternation of archive and spectacle creates a balance of cerebral and retinal stimulation: by showing how the coal mining heritage impinges on family life and entertainment industry, fashion and children's fantasies, the extent to which a profession evolves to a way of life becomes palpable. As does biopolitics avant la lettre: the encroachment of working life into the employees' private sphere.
An art historical department traces coal as form and content, as a building material as well as the subject matter of visual and lens-based art since the 19th century. Starting with John Martin's notion of deep mining as a reserve of the unconscious, where the forces of light and dark clash and angels wrestle with demons. Psychological renderings like Martin's prevail in this, as it were, pre-historic division, where Henry Moore's depictions of the miner's agonizing labour seem like a sinister depiction of the human condition: contorted bodies grinding away in tomb-like dugouts. Painters at the outset of the industrial revolution however glorified mining as culture taking over the wilderness, in other words: sense conquering senselessness.
The third section consists of visual, lens-based, performative and participative work by 39 contemporary artists. They present work that goes from small print to the monumental, from the obvious to the liminal, from the chilly to the playful. This shift between research and contemplation suspends the imminent information overkill, the more so as the cathedral-sized location provides the exhibits with ample space to stay clear of each other.
The visualisation of the abstract procedures of industrial production, distribution and devastation is brought about by a variety of installations, including a flotilla of prayer mats, once owned by first generation migrants from Turkey. Heading straight towards Mecca they establish a spiritual relationship between material and immaterial forms of life. Amazing material forms of life manifest itself in the shape of a colony of ants, creating their sophisticated collective metabolism in front of our very eyes. Watching them busily carrying leaves three times their size one can't help wondering how the average miner's workload would feature if it became visible this way. A similarly bizarre imbalance - though not as gracefully looking - would probably be the outcome.
Labour as a means of social engineering certainly looms large in post-revolutionary Russia - a period of vivid discussions concerning the artists' role within the construction of a socialist society. While Magdalena Jitrik's blend of instruction and painting - a board fraught with historic reminders next to four wannabe constructive tableaus - invokes the commitment and spirit of the optimism of this past. Claire Fontaine recalls the end of this social experiment which had started so promisingly by reconstructing the neon sign of a communal building in the town next to the Chernobyl power plant: ‘The House of Energetic Culture'.
The visitors' hazy notion of being part of systems beyond their control becomes apparent at the sight of Ante Timmermans' pointlessly stamping and punching sheets of paper, with the confetti ‘Creating a Molehill out of a Mountain of Work', as the title has it. The sheer insanity of some activities based on the division of labour also takes shape in Ni Haifeng's extensive join-in activity, which includes the ongoing production of a ridiculously majestic cascade of rags, stitched together as a result of systematic waste of time and energy. Whoever wishes to participate in this dubious creativity in order to contribute to the corporate good is welcome to do so by taking a seat within a production line of sewing machines and sharing the experience workers in so called post-industrial societies enjoy.
A similar possibility to experience what usually remains off the radar of our consciousness, is Nemanja Cvijanovi's invitation to turn the handle of an unassuming music box, apparently sounding the ‘Internationale' ever so gently. Only later the culprit will realize that large speakers outside spread the message. On average three people per minute perform this act. The slightly enervating repetition is unlikely to make the masses mount the barricades. But maybe it helps us to consider the distant consequences of one's actions. And that earlier than people used to during the industrial age which still presents us with its remote and long-term effects.
Manifesta 9 till September 30th in Genk, Belgium. www.manifesta9.org