Manifesta 9: The Deep of the Modern

Curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina, the true theme of Manifesta 9's main exhibition is our everchanging economic system, continuously transforming the terms and conditions of labour and social relations.

For the main exhibition of Manifesta 9 , Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina has created — with Dawn Ades and Katarina Gregos — The Deep of the Modern , a dialogue between personal narrative, history, the memory of a particular place, and a present era of connections, transversality and global dynamics.

Manifesta is an itinerant biennial founded in the early nineties as a platform for investigating political, social and economic change underway — through an European lens. Among its guiding principles is its location: it is held in marginal areas that are not yet central to artistic production. This edition takes place at the gates of Genk , a small town halfway between Brussels, Eindhoven and Maastricht, in the Limburg region of Belgium. Inhabited mainly by miners, and developed primarily in relation to the presence of coal mines, this area has long been considered a sort of industrial hinterland in Europe. Today, a large percentage of Genk's population is made up of children and grandchildren of miners, who were originally late 19th century migrants, mostly from Italy. It is worth remembering that until not so long ago, Italy was a country of emigration; only in 1974 did the trend reverse.

The Deep of the Modern is concentrated in one location, an empty and dilapidated building at the Waterschei mining site. The show occupies three floors, with sections defined according to the building's structure. The exhibition space on the ground floor houses objects and documents; it is a web of history, stories and memories relating to the mining activity of the recent past. The first floor houses works by major artists from the post-war era, from Duchamp to Beuys, Broodthaers to Richard Long; part of the space, insulated and air conditioned, includes works from the history of art between the 19th and 20th centuries. The third floor hosts thirty-five contemporary artists, many of whom were invited to create new projects addressing the issue of labour, in light of our current zeitgeist. In fact, the show's true theme is our everchanging economic system, continuously transforming the terms and conditions of labour and social relations.
Top: Carlos Amorales, <em>Coal Drawing Machine</em>, 2012. Installation with plotter printer, paper and charcoal, © the artist. Supported by Yvon Lambert Gallery, Paris, and Kurimanzutto Gallery, Mexico City. Acknowledgment to Atelier Calder, Sachém France. Commissioned by Manifesta 9. Photo by Kristof Vrancken. Above: Edward Burtynsky, <em>China, Manufacturing</em>, 2005. Selection of eight photographs, © the artist. Supported by Galeria Toni Tàpies, Barcelona. Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto, Stefan Röpke Gallery, Köln
Top: Carlos Amorales, Coal Drawing Machine , 2012. Installation with plotter printer, paper and charcoal, © the artist. Supported by Yvon Lambert Gallery, Paris, and Kurimanzutto Gallery, Mexico City. Acknowledgment to Atelier Calder, Sachém France. Commissioned by Manifesta 9. Photo by Kristof Vrancken. Above: Edward Burtynsky, China, Manufacturing , 2005. Selection of eight photographs, © the artist. Supported by Galeria Toni Tàpies, Barcelona. Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto, Stefan Röpke Gallery, Köln
The exhibition is interwoven and deeply rooted in its context. The energy of memory circulates unmistakeably in the powerful space so strongly defined by the Waterschei. Emerging simultaneously from the recesses of memory, family "collections" and police archives, the material and immaterial heritage on view resonates with torment revealing something repressed, at times recovering a forgotten history with dramatic implications: the unspeakable misery of so many past lives spent, from childhood on, in the real and metaphorical darkness of the mine, the tragedy of an existence from which very little remains. There are tea towels embroidered with scenes of everyday life; record books of the work of men, women, and children — who, according to a 1889 law, were admitted to the mine only after reaching the age of twelve. Seven thousand of these documents are on display, along with portraits by former miner Manuel Duran, who used any available material — from pasta to salted potatoes — to paint to create a vast array of anonymous heads that speak as universal images of miners and personifications of misery.
Claire Fontaine, <em>The House? of Energetic Culture</em>, 2012. Double and triple outline neon glass on aluminum characters, aluminum framework, transformers, flasher unit and cabling, 10,1 x 1,75 metres, © the artist. Supported by Neon Line, Dusty Sprengnagel. Courtesy of Air de Paris, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris. Commissioned by Manifesta 9. Photo by Kristof Vrancken
Claire Fontaine, The House? of Energetic Culture , 2012. Double and triple outline neon glass on aluminum characters, aluminum framework, transformers, flasher unit and cabling, 10,1 x 1,75 metres, © the artist. Supported by Neon Line, Dusty Sprengnagel. Courtesy of Air de Paris, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris. Commissioned by Manifesta 9. Photo by Kristof Vrancken
But The Deep of the Modern also speaks of a bent, but not broken mankind ready to raise its head against destiny. A race which has produced surprising figures exploring unforeseen roads, defying all odds, sometimes reaching great achievements and success. Like the Ashington Group , a collective of a few dozen miners who, under the guidance of Robert Lyon in 1934, devoted themselves to amateur painting in their spare time, achieving a certain reputation. Or such as Rocco Granata , the son of Italian miners, who as an accordionist recorded the 1958 international hit Marina and became a star. On display are his records, a glittering jukebox, his Vespa, paraphernalia of every kind, and images both of a young Granata and of him at the peak of his success.
The exhibition unfolds in a continuous back-and-forth, freeing itself from the tendency to see context-specific work as a way to claim a local identity to be preserved and defended
Katleen Vermeir & Ronny Heiremans,<em> The Residence (a wager for the afterlife)</em>, 2012. Single screen video installation, 35 minutes, &copy; the artists. A production of Limited Editions VZW supported by the Flanders Audiovisual Fund and the Flemish Community. A co-production of Argos, centre for art and media (Brussels), C-Mine (Genk), Cultuurcentrum (Bruges), deBuren (Brussels), Extra City Kunsthal (Antwerp), FLACC (Genk), Manifesta 9 Limburg (Genk) and Triodos Fonds. Research support by artist residencies in China CEAC (Xiamen), TIM (Beijing)
Katleen Vermeir & Ronny Heiremans, The Residence (a wager for the afterlife) , 2012. Single screen video installation, 35 minutes, © the artists. A production of Limited Editions VZW supported by the Flanders Audiovisual Fund and the Flemish Community. A co-production of Argos, centre for art and media (Brussels), C-Mine (Genk), Cultuurcentrum (Bruges), deBuren (Brussels), Extra City Kunsthal (Antwerp), FLACC (Genk), Manifesta 9 Limburg (Genk) and Triodos Fonds. Research support by artist residencies in China CEAC (Xiamen), TIM (Beijing)
Many of the works on display on the first floor use coal or other materials charged with meaning and evocative power. Installations of environmental dimensions such as Christian Boltanski's Le registres du Grand Hornu , David Hammons' Chasing the Blue Train or Rossella Biscotti's Title One, The Task of the Community and A Conductor are complemented by experimental documentary films as the powerful Coal Face , Alberto Cavalcanti's 1935 portrayal of a chilling situation of everyday desperation.

In this "historical" section, the pieces on display find their lowest common denominator in the mining landscape and the work and life of miners. The works range from the sublime to the picturesque, interpreting industrial sites as dramatic and grandiose elements; representing scenes of an underground hell and considering the aesthetics of pollution; going from a realism that sees workers as the main characters on the scene to Stakhanovism . Work and workers are the central elements of representation.
2012 Architects and Refunc, architectural implementations in the Manifesta 9 exhibition venue. Photo by Kristof Vrancken
2012 Architects and Refunc, architectural implementations in the Manifesta 9 exhibition venue. Photo by Kristof Vrancken
The building's uppermost floor is occupied by contemporary works, in many cases produced for the exhibition, in which the artists reflect upon the conditions of industrial production and work in today's post-industrial society. One of the most striking is a piece by Mikhsil Karikis and Uriel Orlow , who asked singers from a choir of former miners to recall and vocalize the sounds of underground mining activities. The resulting piece is presented in a mysterious and fascinating video filmed near Genk. A video by Nicolas Kozakis and Raoul Vaneigem is also poetic and poignant: we see a lone worker intent on building a stone house near the sea, with a donkey as his only companion. His actions are accompanied by a text expressing the need for a new and more humane worldview.
Former coal mine of Waterschei, Genk, Limburg, Belgium. Photos by Kristof Vrancken
Former coal mine of Waterschei, Genk, Limburg, Belgium. Photos by Kristof Vrancken
Edward Burtynsky photographs men and women who work in large-scale industrial factories in China, while Paolo Woods , in his photographic series Chinafrica , explores the effects of the recent conquest of the African continent by the Chinese economy and the human relationships that come about through the resulting dislocation of the population. These trends are currently underway in our global world.

Manifesta 9's The Deep of the Modern unfolds in a continuous back-and-forth between questions and answers, freeing itself from the tendency to see context-specific work as a way to claim a local identity to be preserved and defended. The show's site and venue create, instead, a paradigmatic situation, which allows reflection upon the transformation of cultural, industrial, economic and relational models that go well beyond a specific context. Beyond an interesting exhibition, The Deep of the Modern is an important curatorial essay. Gabi Scardi
The Manifesta headquarters
The Manifesta headquarters
Ni Haifeng, <em>Para-production</em>, 2008-2012. Textile shreds, sewing machines, work in progress, &copy; the artist. Supported by The Mondriaan Fund, Amsterdam. Acknowledgment to Guo Ru. Photo by Kristof Vrancken
Ni Haifeng, Para-production , 2008-2012. Textile shreds, sewing machines, work in progress, © the artist. Supported by The Mondriaan Fund, Amsterdam. Acknowledgment to Guo Ru. Photo by Kristof Vrancken
Igor Grubic, <em>The Angels with Dirty Faces</em>, photographs, 2004-2006. Courtesy of the artist
Igor Grubic, The Angels with Dirty Faces , photographs, 2004-2006. Courtesy of the artist

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