The title of this year’s Manifesta, “The Deep of the Modern,” has three meanings. The first is related to the setting of the exhibition: the André Dumont coal mining complex in Waterschei, Genk, Belgium, which is in fact a defunct mine. Ever since the closure of several coal mines in the 1980s, this city has been marked by a network of abyssal cavities. The title also hints at the profound role of the coal mining industry in the course of modernization and industrialization. Indeed, this influence is the springboard for the exhibition’s theme. Finally, in a more abstract sense, the significance of the title lies within the exhibition’s attempt to reexamine, reanalyze and reconstruct the relationship between Modernity, the present, and the future: to excavate the incomplete enterprise of Modernism from the depths of memory.
“The present has ceased to be a point of transition from the past to the future. Instead, it has become a site of permanent rewriting of the past and future, of permanent rewriting of history, of constant proliferations of historical narratives beyond any individual grasp and control” (Boris Groys’ “Comrades of Time”). In recent years, curators have widely embraced the practice of using exhibitions to reevaluate history. However, the historical implications of such exhibitions do not make them historical exhibitions per se. On the contrary, these exhibitions usually include a good deal of contemporary art. They contain within their spaces a marvelous, blossoming temporality, casting a net that connects the past, present, and future. Temporality is nothing more than the perceptual relationship generated between ourselves and time: a means of experiencing and understanding time. Today, the world around us has entered a new, peculiar space and time where temporality exerts an unprecedented influence. With the advent of the Internet, the dissemination of images and information has become immediate. On the one hand, this information is often onesided, fragmented, and distorted— hence the forming of a historical amnesia. On the other hand, the Internet has democratized knowledge, weakened the power of the monopolies of discourse, and liberated the organization of information. The networks of information have transcended space, linked the past and the present, and connected previously isolated disciplines, creating new space for the generation of knowledge.
The evolution of our understanding of temporality provides an important foreground to this year’s Manifesta. Chief curator Cuauhtemoc Medina specifies that this European biennial seeks to provide a nuanced retrospective and imitation of the logic of Modernism (namely, its political and cultural domination) while allowing us to re-examine the abyss of Modernism’s temporality. This keystone, along with the above-mentioned three meanings of the exhibition’s title, forms the basis of the distinctive tripartite structure of Manifesta 9. The first part, “Poetics of Restructuring,” includes works of contemporary art that embody personally restructured artistic responses to the global economic system. The second part, “The Age of Coal,” presents works by artists of the last two centuries that address the historic relationship between aesthetics and the Industrial Age, with an emphasis on mineral extraction. The third part, “17 Tons,” is an exhibit of historical texts that document the history of the coal mining industry in Belgium’s Limburg province and other areas of Europe.
The historical texts are located on the first floor of the exhibition space. The contemporary art has been installed on the second and third floors, and a partitioned space on the second floor houses “The Age of Coal.” In laying out the exhibition in this way, the curators have— consciously or unconsciously— reflected an understanding of history as linear: ascending upward from the first floor, we pass from the past into the contemporary. The organization seems somewhat isolated and inflexible: although the exhibition does achieve “the formulation of new concepts through the mutual provocation of contemporary art and historical artifact,” an excessive logicality makes Manifesta 9 a shade too didactic. “The Age of Coal” is the most novel portion, achieving a breakthrough with its construction of relationships between knowledge systems and history.
Dawn Ades, the renowned British curator and art historian, curated “The Age of Coal.” Duchamp’s contribution to the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition in Paris, 1200 Coal Sacks, is recreated at the entrance, suggesting a four-dimensional pocket connecting different times and places. Loosely adhering to a chronological structure, the exhibition also explores various sub-themes, including a series of drawings and photographs of industrial settings. These works of realism portray the circumstances of the working class and reflect the dialectic between industrial aesthetics and pollution. Just as visitors begin to lose themselves in these classic works of Modernism, the space is disrupted by a partition in the guise of a viewfinder, further adding perspective to the lucidity and vividness of the oil landscape installed behind it. This painting depicts an imagined prehistoric forest that served as the source of the Waterschei coal deposit. Jan Habex, a one-time employee of the mine, was commissioned to paint it by the mine’s operator on the basis of research conducted by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. The curator also scattered several rock samples around the exhibition. Through the museological practices of labeling and defining terms, this perfectly executed touch instills visitors with the unexpected sensation of being within a museum of natural history. The collocation imbues coal with a symbolic significance discernible within the artworks and doubly serves to return coal to its status as a natural substance. In the nearby installation by Robert Smithson, Nonsite, Site Uncertain (1968), the artist places coal into a series of metal containers in the shape of right angles, forming an abstract geometric shape. Visitors unfamiliar with Smithson’s work may misconstrue this installation as just another display case of coal ore; it is precisely this capacity for misinterpretation that allows the objects in this space to depart from the tracks of their original logic.
The contemporary part of the exhibition attempts to encompass too many topics, including modes of consumption, green energy, gender and manual labor, global economic transformation, neoliberal economics, underground economies, and so on. Although these are timely subjects, they drift too far from the original intent of the exhibition. The artworks strain to balance poetic, abstract narratives and direct, journalistic critiques of current events. Still, many of the artists make a strong impression. Duncan Campbell’s fifty-minute video Make It New John (2009) relates the infamous story of the DeLorean Motor Company, a smug car-maker that only managed to produce one model— the DMC-12— before closing down. Employing his usual style, Campbell intersperses news excerpts with archival material, constructing a narrative that maneuvers between history and imagination, reality and ideal. The Turkish artist Emre Hüner’s installation occupies a dilapidated area of the third floor, where he has arranged a series of readymades and abstract plastic sculptures. The effect is a poetic atmosphere blending appearance and reality, the true and the false, in which history, nature, and the cosmos intersect.
“The Deep of the Modern” seems overwrought in its schema and structure, but it does make an impressive effort to construct a relationship between contemporary art, historical texts, and various cultures, polities, theories, and societies. The exhibition leads visitors through different places and times, producing an interrogation of temporality. It unearths a deeply suppressed desire: the hope to inform our reflection of the present with a constructive reevaluation of history instead of a purely nostalgic one, the wish to break down and reconstruct our relationship with time by way of revisiting Modernism, as well as the imagination of a more authentic, more humane future.
Weng Xiaoyu (Translated by Daniel Nieh)