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Culture

Artists Turn Industrial Fuel Into Works of Art

The industrial areas of Germany, France and Poland have all been fueled by one thing: coal. Now a group of international artists are using the fuel to spark dialogue.

Chunks of coal

An artist's palette

The Hansa Coking Plant is just six kilometers (3.7 miles) north of the industrial German city of Dortmund. Shuttered for over 16 years, the site was once the country's largest coke producer.

In 1997 the site was taken over by the Foundation for the Preservation of Industrial Monuments. Today the buildings stand as they did at the height of production, only now the hulking machines are silent and coke no longer pours forth.

The Hansa Coking Plant with the water cooling towers in the background and a conveyor belt for transporting coal.

The Hansa Coking Plant has been out of operation since 1992

A byproduct of hard coal, coke is created by heating the coal to over 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,823 degrees Fahrenheit) in airless furnaces for 20 hours. The grey chunks of highly carbonized matter that emerge are most commonly used for fueling blast furnaces in the industrial production of pig iron.

At one time, up to 1,000 people were employed at the plant, and while preserving the industrial relic may seem a strange idea to some, the buildings are an important means of remembering the past, according to Meike Kieslich, a spokesperson for the foundation.

"Some people want to tear them down, but they’re a part of our history and we have to keep them or we'll lose that history," she said.

This former coking plant is now the setting for an unusual art exhibition called COAL -- from Carboniferous to Open-eyed Artists on Landscape. A total of 18 artists -- six each from Germany, Poland and France -- spent a week in the coal mining regions of each of those nations.

Looking for a way to use coal as an inspiration for art, their research took them deep into coal mines and the social and economic situation of the three communities.

Musical coal

The Black Noise exhibit, created by Clea Coudsi and Eric Herbin of Lille, France, gives voice to 14 chunks of coal. Collected from mines in Germany, France and Poland then planted on rods attached to small motors, the coal is grazed by a long piece of metal attached to a small speaker -- which creates a kind of coal symphony.

14 chunks of coal suspended on metal rods with needles and speakers connected to them.

Spinning coal makes music in "Black Noise"

Coudsi and Herbin came up with idea after learning that scientists in China used a similar method to listen to Ming vases. The scientists wanted to hear people from the Ming Dynasty trapped in the pottery, Coudsi said.

"The idea came because pieces of coal are so old and there are generations and generations trapped inside it," added Herbin.

The project strikes a vein particularly close to Herbin. Growing up in the French mining region of Nord-Pas de Calais, many of Herbin's relatives, including his grandfather and several uncles, spent lifetimes in the mines. When he told his family what he would be doing, some were proud, while others were puzzled.

"Some of them said to me, 'Why would you want to go down in a mine just to look around?' It made no sense to them," Herbin said.

A three-dimensional timeline

Unlike regions the artists visited in France and Germany, coal mining is still in full swing in Poland's Upper Silesia region.

This was the most impressive part of the experience for Szymon Gdowicz, an artist from Katowice, Poland. Seeing the abandoned mines in Germany and France's reclaimed mines covered in flowers and trees was like looking at the future of his country, he said.

"One day it will be like it is here in Germany," he said, alluding to the idle German plants. "All the coal mines will be closed."

Our past is their future

The contrasts in how each of the countries' use of coal and coal mines led to the exhibit's creation, according to Ute Schmidt and Richard Ortmann from the Kulturhaus Neuasseln in Dortmund.

A giant air compressor formerly used to compress natural gas for shipment to customers.

The exhibition has been set up in and on the buildings or the Hansa Coking Plant

Vacationing in the coal mining region of Poland, they came across the coal production sites and were moved by the idea that something that was part of their past could be simultaneously a part of someone else's future, Schmidt said.

"The exhibition was based on the idea that artists in the program would be able to see the same places and have the same experiences, and then turn these experiences into art," Schmidt said.

The exhibition has already been held in Poland. For the next month it will reside at the Hansa Coking Plant in Dortmund, surrounded by the hulking machines and the smell of industry. From there the artists move on to a final show in Lille.

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