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.