Coal and art: an unlikely pair | Arts | DW | 08.05.2018
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Coal and art: an unlikely pair

Coal may be a depletable resource but art is endless. But what do the two have to do with each other? In Germany's Ruhrgebiet, the country's coal capital, 17 museums take on the task of tying coal with art.

Ibrahim Mahama wanted to be on hand for the unveiling of his concealing sculpture on Saturday, May 5, 2018. Even if he was unable to cover up the castle Strünkede in Herne with his shabby jute sacks in its entirety beforehand, he was able to present his story as a work-in-progress. The work is a parable on transformation and contrasts, full of references both global and local.

Volunteers had sewn together a bunch of used sacks that the Ghanaian artist had taken from his home land, exchanging them with new ones there. These used sacks had transported coffee and cocoa, and later on charcoal, for years. The sacks were originally produced in Asia, probably in Bangladesh where production is particularly cheap. Many people had left their marks on the jute sacks, a symbol of their poverty and  of the exploitation of the workers.

Deutschland Jutesäcke verdecken das Wasserschloss Strünkede (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kusch)

Jute charcoal sacks cover up the baroque castle Strünkede

At the water castle Strünkrede, one of the Ruhr region's most beautiful locations, weddings take place almost daily. Especially in the summer, the baroque building tends to be booked out. Over the next few months, however, people will only be able to take pictures of the building wrapped in these jute sacks. Unsurprisingly, some people see the artwork as a provocation, especially those who intended to spend the most beautiful day of their life there. Instead of enjoying a romantic wedding, they're being reminded of the global circulation of raw materials.

Read more:City of Bochum: A center for culture in the Ruhr Valley

Germany's traditional coal region is now shaped by art

The last two remaining black coal mines in the Ruhr region will be closed by 2018 – a turning point at which an entire industrial era comes to an end. In the densely populated region, people wonder what will replace the former production of steel and coal. But people have been preparing themselves. Art and culture will play a big role in the transformation process.

Ferdinand Ullrich, the former head of the Recklinghäuser Kunsthalle, has coordinated the mega project. He underlines how close the relation between art and coal is in the region, a claim that some people question. "We are in the process of making that claim come true," says Ullrich.

Cartoon shows workers in display cases (Hendrik Dorgathen)

Comics and cartoons like this one by Hendrik Dorgathen are shown in the Ludwig gallery in Oberhausen Castle

Ten years ago, 20 museums joined the association of Ruhr Art Museums. Seventeen of them are now reflecting on the end of the coal era in a big exhibition project that covers several cities. In what ways did coal and mining inspire artists in the past? How will hard coal be used in an aesthetic way, or as a material for artwork?

Coal mining has shaped the Ruhr region for more than 250 years. There are hundreds of kilometers of grousers under the earth. Furthermore, artificial mountains and industrial buildings have shaped a new cultural landscape. How do artists interpret the relationship between coal mining and the mythology that's connected with it? How do they view the cultural identity of the region that has also been formed by immigrant workers?

Unique artworks

150 artistic personalities are looking for answers to these questions. They are not all about power and wealth, or sharp social contrasts as in the case of Mahama. "Black gold" has always fascinated people, not only as a material, or form of energy, but also as an aesthetic resource. The miners themselves were likewise inspired by the material. The exhibition "Schichtwechsel," or "Shift Change" in Dortmund's Ostwall Museum presents the creative efforts of these lay artists.

Artist Andreas Golinski (DW/S. Peschel/Andreas Golinski)

What does the underground look like? Andreas Golinski contemplated that in his room installation

Andreas Golinski's installation "In The Depths of Memory" can be admired in the Kunstmuseum Bochum. In the artist's own words, it's a "retrospective of the coal mining era as a piece of fiction." Under the title "Glück auf!" ("Good luck!"), the Ludwig Galerie Schloss Oberhausen presents comics and cartoons featuring coal. The Josef Albers Museum Quadrat in Bottrop shows a photo series created by Bernd and Hilla Becher of grousers, pit frames, blast furnaces and gasometers.

Read more: The end of an era: hard coal in Germany

Many of the artworks shown in the 13 cities that are taking part in the project were especially created for these particular locations. Thomas Hausholt,who has played an important role in organizing the entire project, says that premade works were not included in it. The same holds true for works by internationally renowned artists, among them Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Jannis Kounellis, Alicja Kwade and Andreas Gursky. These famous artists had to produce works that would reflect the concept of the exhibitions, namely that "the material coal can inspire an aesthetic moment."

Canary with a miner's hat (VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018)

"Kolibri" by Ulrike Martens can be seen in the Gallery Ludwig in Oberhausen Castle

A change of perspective as a signal of breakup

German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has taken on the aegis of the mega project "Art & Coal." When the last museum taking part in it will open its exhibition entitled "Hommage an Jannis Kounellis" on June 8, the change of perspective of coal will have been completed. It will not be a geological material anymore. The carbon era will be over. But its region, so it is hoped, will have a future based on art.

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