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View from Genk

The post-industrial city of Genk drew on its mining heritage to stage the biennial art exhibition Manifesta

Unlike its near namesake Ghent, the Belgian city of Genk boasts no splendid cathedral or Flemish Renaissance houses. It blossomed in the 20th century after the discovery of coal, which was exploited by three large mines. All those mines have long since closed but one was the site this summer for the European art biennial Manifesta - a biennial with no fixed abode, which since its inception in Rotterdam in 1996 has sought locations less for their existing arts scene than for cultural and social issues they might raise. This year’s edition was of especial interest because it brought new depth and significance to the whole event.

As Genk boomed during the last century, its population expanded from 2,000 to 70,000, with many immigrants arriving from the Mediterranean. The area beside each of the mines developed as a garden suburb, with curving streets, a hierarchy of houses, a church and a school. When the first mine closed in the mid-1960s there were protests, strikes and two fatalities, but subsequent closures in the 1980s were more adroitly managed, with ample government subsidies easing the pain. Ford Motor Company is now the major employer and the current unemployment level is little more than the Belgian average.

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The now defunct André Dumont Mine powerfully evokes Genk’s industrial past, while anticipating transformation into a new technology park . Photograph: KRISTOF VRANCKEN 2010

As a city seeking a post-industrial future in a prolonged recession, Genk attracted Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen for encapsulating a wide European problem, but its selection as host for this year’s biennial was spurred by architecture. ‘We were immediately electrified by the building,’ she says of the André Dumont Coal Mine, whose main block housed almost all the exhibits. Completed in 1924 to designs by Gaston Vautquenne, it partly masks its highly functional interior behind decorative bands of brick and stone, with a fanciful tower at one corner. Whereas a mine such as Zeche Zollverein in Essen, completed just a few years later, completely embraced modernism, Vautquenne clearly wanted to dignify his building with this conservative dress.
But while outside you are certainly in Belgium, inside you could as well be in Detroit.

It is a quintessential ex-industrial interior, with long perspectives down rows of concrete columns and views that sometimes embrace several levels of the building at a time. Along with such generic features as pitted surfaces, peeling paint and truncated cables are traces of the block’s specific past - for instance, channels in the concrete floor where the miners’ shower stalls once stood. Though the idea of showing art in such raw settings is now familiar, this was nonetheless a spectacular site for Manifesta - the more so because there was such a symbiosis between the building and the exhibits.

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In previous years Manifesta has only presented contemporary art. Under the overall curatorship of Mexican art historian Cuauhtémoc Medina, the innovation this time was to supplement the contemporary work with two sections devoted to the past. One of these studied the representation of mining in painting and photography and artists’ use of coal itself as a material. The other drew on the multicultural history of the immediate area, presenting objects with much more panache than the usual local history museum and with no condescension to visitors. The first thing you saw was an array of Turkish prayer mats, like an abstraction of the floor of a mosque; beyond were some intriguing models used for teaching miners.

When Manifesta closed at the end of September it had received over 100,000 visitors and its organisers estimate that an astonishing 70% of them were not regular art-goers. ‘We are very very pleased,’ says Fijen. One source of its audience was neighbouring Holland where evidence of former coal-mining has been largely obliterated. Genk made that mistake in the 1960s with its first mine to close, but has since found new use for the second as a cultural centre while the vacant André Dumont Mine will shortly become part of a technology park. Hopefully the ancillary buildings that are presently derelict won’t be too sanitised in the process, nor the surrounding landscape made too tidy. Meanwhile the catalogue of Genk Manifesta remains online and a further publication is planned.

One welcome inclusion in the show was the poet W H Auden, a connoisseur of mines and mining, who supplied the words for the 1930s film Coal Face. Auden famously observed that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ and by inference thought this was true of art in general. At most biennials surely no-one would argue with him, but perhaps this Genk Manifesta might just be an exception.

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