Art, or rather its context, is becoming more loquacious. It’s gotten to the point where art isn’t supposed to exist until the public is told why it exists, what it means, whose interests it serves. Curators now prefer staging discussions of art to presenting works. The run-up to this year’s Documenta, the most prestigious of the great recurrent international art exhibitions, included the publication of no fewer than 100 booklets over a period of two years, with contributions by economists, anthropologists, art historians and experts of every other stripe, while each of the hundred days of the exhibition is accompanied by several lectures, conferences or readings. And yet there’s another viewpoint. “Poetry reaches the unsaid, and leaves it unsaid,” according to Etel Adnan, the Beirut-born, California-based poet and abstract painter who is among the 180 or so participants in Documenta, which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, a great place for the unsaid. Maybe the town had its charm 200 years ago, when the Brothers Grimm were collecting folk tales there; but having been flattened by Allied bombs in World War II, it’s now as nondescript as some provincial town turned inside out by utilitarian postwar planning and architecture.
Kassel was hardly the most humdrum place I visited in search of art this summer. My pilgrimage began in Genk, Belgium, a Flemish village that was undistinguished until 1901, when coal was discovered there. It industrialized rapidly, drawing immigrants from throughout Europe; the mines have since gone dormant, but Genk remains a gritty industrial town. This year, it is hosting Manifesta 9, the latest edition of the roving European biennial of contemporary art that originated in Rotterdam in 1996 and last materialized in 2010 in Murcia, Spain. The name Manifesta is self-evidently a homage of sorts to Documenta, but by reputation—this was my first Manifesta—the biennial is a far leaner, younger, more experimental enterprise. Its peripatetic spirit seems to be an expression of the rootlessness of the globalized, interconnected “knowledge economy” that, at least until the crash of 2008, seemed promising to so many.
Manifesta 9—curated by Cuauhtémoc Medina with Katerina Gregos and Dawn Ades, and on view through September 30—only half lives up to this reputation. Subtitled “The Deep of the Modern,” it pursues with a seriousness greater than any show I’ve seen the idea that an exhibition should engage the history of its locale. To this end, it is articulated in three parts, all of them situated within a vast mine works on the city’s outskirts. The first section concerns the history of coal mining and the life and culture of miners. It includes pieces by brand-name modernists who made work documenting the mining life, such as the filmmaker Joris Ivens, but consists mainly of artifacts (generally not so different from the ones found in the small mining museum housed in the same building) that illuminate both the general history of coal mining in Europe and the specific history of mining in Genk. Then comes an art-historical section on images of coal mining in modern art and the use of coal as an art material, beginning with Marcel Duchamp (his installation at the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme consisted of 1,200 coal sacks suspended from the ceiling over a stove) and including artists of the 1960s and ’70s such as Marcel Broodthaers, Jannis Kounellis, Robert Smithson and Christian Boltanski.
Only by passing through these two sections can one ascend to the upper floors, where contemporary works are on view. Most of them concern not coal or mining alone but broader social and economic issues— globalization, industrialization, deindustrialization—that mesh with those raised in the historical section. There are well-known works that fit tightly in this context: for example, Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of the new industrial landscape of Guangdong province in China, or the film version of Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave (2001; co-directed with Mike Figgis), a re-enactment of a clash between British police and striking miners in 1984. But the emphasis on subject matter as the main criterion has the predictable effect of reducing artworks to illustrations of a curatorial concept. One piece that left a deeper impression was Sounds From Beneath, a video by Mikhail Karikis and Uriel Orlow, who worked with a choir of former miners to re-create the sounds heard while working deep underground. The sounds are unearthly, haunting, and yet, as these men render them, unquestionably musical; the profoundly dignified faces of the miners singing amid the desolate landscape of a mine speaks to an entire culture that has been lost with the idling of the mines. This sensitive collaboration is, as Gregos puts it, “a salvaging of memory, an ode, a tribute, and a requiem all at once.”