Manifesta 9: Genk

Jane Shallice reports from Manifesta in Genk, a biennial Europe-wide contemporary art exhibition which this year had a coal mining theme
October 2012

Photo: Yohan Creemers/Flickr

Why trail across the Channel on the train to Brussels in early September, only to then hang around waiting at empty stations for a connection to Genk?  My depression was compounded by a lovely September day in London being replaced by mist, low grey clouds, cold and rain. Everyone had said that Genk has very lovely buildings.  They were mistaken; the destination was not Ghent, but Genk.

Leaving the train at the end of the line, I was slightly surprised to be accompanied by some North African families, probably now a common sight through most of Western Europe. But my surprise was further increased when descending to the bus station; it was as if I had arrived in London. All the students and kids getting on and off of buses were the same ethnic and cultural mix found in any London college. This was certainly not my image of Belgium and particularly not of Flanders.

In early August an adulatory review of an exhibition being hosted in a mining town in Eastern Belgium, had galvanised me to take a look. Manifesta is a biennial European wide contemporary art exhibition, which locates in different parts of Europe with different themes every two years. This year was coal mining and appropriately it was housed in an old coal-mine building in Limburg, closed 20 years ago.

The exhibition was in an exceptionally fine listed building, a large and very imposing Art Deco building, (looking more like a mill), which has been entirely stripped inside. On entering, the very first exhibit seen was a large carpet laid out across the empty space. It is composed of the loaned prayer mats from the local Muslim population - miners or their families. Who were these particular miners, here in eastern Belgium?

But adding to my surprise or confusion, the town itself was no old mining town, but a new town. No terraced housing, no bleak recreation grounds, no slag heaps. Gradually as I pieced together this population and this town, it became clear that this was a very different mining community from those found in Britain, and probably most of Europe. In the mid 20s a French man invested in the area and opened the mine but the local Flemish population would not work for him.  Miners came from other parts of Europe; France, Italy, Poland, Greece, Turkey and North Africa, and these were the original workers who came and stayed. Genk has grown from the village of around 450 farmers and agricultural workers to a new planned town of 65,000 miners, housed in semidetached dwellings with gardens, following the model of the Letchworth Garden City.

The exhibition was in no way celebrating nostalgia, any sort of sanitised collective memory nor an anaesthetising experience. It was a wonderful mixture of displays, paintings and installations laid out on the spacious empty floors of the disused and gutted mine building. The first stages were finely selected exhibits from the local mine itself: the prayer mats, original small models of complex geological structures used by the engineers to teach new miners the ways to shore up roofs and passage ways, a display of the original work books of the miners, an exhibit of the 1966 strike when in the face of possible closure the miners occupied the mine and the police brutally attacked, killing two miners and wounding many.

The floors above were areas where the curators had obtained paintings and drawings of coal and mines from many areas of Europe, with a large collection from the UK.  But it was also the areas where contemporary art pieces were displayed, artists having been commissioned or asked to loan pieces in response to the overall theme of coal mining and its industrial processes. It ranged from the homage to Marcel Duchamps’ Coal Sacks Ceiling (1200 coal sacks that he had hung from the ceiling of the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme in 1938 Paris) with a huge number of hanging coal sacks in a dark area of the space, to ways that coal had affected the landscape. There were paintings and documents identifying pollution or the impact of industrial processes with Stakhanovite posters from the Soviet Union.  The film by Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis of the battle of Orgreave and a television film of Tony Harrison reading V, the poem in which he responds to the graffiti on his parents’ grave in Leeds with his recognition of Thatcher’s attack on the miners and the organised working class, and skilled work itself. One of the most stunning pieces is that by a Chinese artist Ni Haifeng, Para-Production. In a space, almost the size of a chapel, there is a mini mountain of fabric off cuts, about 15 or more sewing machines to the side and at the back a huge sewn tapestry made from similar waste.  Production, commodities, and recreation?

In its statement Manifesta stated that it was always keen to ‘witness its own transformation, testing different forms of processes, artistic practices and curatorial approaches’, while obsessively looking for the new. ‘The Deep of the Modern’, the title of this exhibition, makes reference to the modernistic capacity to go back to a time before its starting point, intending to reinvigorate or renovate itself. This mixture of art works and objects from various periods and various places within the site of an empty mine building, and from which you can see the newly painted white pit head standing straddling other mine buildings, is a constant questioning about what coal is in this place, not just what has happened in Genk but in other places within Europe, and what will replace this type of production and under what circumstances - questions which are important and timely.

www.catalog.manifesta9.org


 

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality

This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

The new politics of art

Nina Power calls for an assertion of true human wealth through shared resources, knowledge, and art – while Jessie Hoskin and Sasha Josette explain how The World Transformed festival will respond to this call

Art, politics and potentias

A potentia is similar to a utopia but rooted in the here and now. Danielle Child speaks to artist Jane Lawson about her forthcoming project Second Degree Potentias.

How the next generation is challenging big oil

Lindsay Alderton explains why a group of children staged a protest intervention against BP




jane shallice 25 October 2012, 21.23

This evening I have just read that Fords have announced that their plant in Genk would be closed in 2014. All 4340 workers will be sacked and production moved to Spain. But this Fords plant was the way that the Belgium government dealt with the closure of the mines in Genk in the 1960s, they negotiated with Fords to open the plant and all the redundant miners were transferred. While we were in Genk we heard there was a rumour that Fords were thinking of closing the factory. But this time there will be no social democratic deals made to bring jobs into the town. It is a different climate with over 4000 families facing unemployment, in a town that is a one factory town. When the miners in 1966 were facing the prospect of the mines being closed they occupied the mine and there was a bloody confrontation with the police and two miners were shot dead. They managed to keep the mine open for a couple more years and the government negotiated the arrival of Fords. Hopefully there will be as big a struggle as 45 years ago.


jangenk 16 January 2013, 18.01

Hi Jane,

i live in Asia but was born in Genk and was there during the crisis of the mine closure (Genk had 3 big coalmine sites). Ford was already there in the 60’s. The last 2 mine closures happened in the 80’s.
Genk’s Northern and Southern Industrial Estates managed to employ aroun 45000 workers. So Genk does not only depend on Ford as approx 8000-10000 jobs will be lost in 2014 upon Ford’s closure.
Politicians should have seen this coming over 10 yrs ago as Belgium can not compete with Spain, Romania and Turkey.
Genk is developing an office zone near the Limburghal convention centre and is developing a science park at Waterschei (former mining site). C-Mine is another inovative project which made neighbouring towns in Holland and Germany jealous…
The spirit in Genk is a survival spirit and whatever happens will be overcome or replaced or improved.\
Yes thanks mines, thanks Ford to make Genk a booming, trendy and inventive place, but it’s time to move on to something bigger.
Genk went through many dark periods and will master this one too.



Comments are now closed on this article.






Red Pepper · 44-48 Shepherdess Walk, London N1 7JP · +44 (0)20 7324 5068 · office[at]redpepper.org.uk
Advertise · Press · Donate
For subscriptions enquiries please email subs@redpepper.org.uk