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Germany’s Farewell to Coal: Artists Reflect on a Dying Industry

In Art & Coal, a major exhibition in Germany’s Ruhr region, artists explore the 900-year-old culture of coal-mining as the country’s last two mines prepare to close.

Claudia Terstappen, “Glück Auf” (2018) Kunst & Kohle, Museum DKM, installation view from Die schwarze Seite (photo: Achim Kukulies)

DUISBURG, Germany — In various branches of Christianity, Saint Barbara is the patron saint of coal miners: she protects them from sudden death and represents their longing for light when they work underground. Until the mid-20th century, statues of the Christian saint could be found in almost every household in Germany’s Ruhr region, a former hub of coal mining. But as the steel and coal industries have declined, Saint Barbara has fallen out of fashion.

At the exhibition Kunst & Kohle — Die schwarze Seite (Art & Coal — The Black Side), on view at Museum DKM in Duisburg, Germany, visitors crowded around artist Claudia Terstappen’s altar for Saint Barbara, puzzling over who she is.

In another room, people stopped in their tracks when they saw a giant installation of a horse, made out of wax and papier-mâché, by sculptor Thomas Virnich. The sculpture depicts Tobias, the last pit pony in the coal mines of Ruhr, who worked until 1966. Mining work was as difficult for animals as it was for men. Used for transporting coal, some horses remained underground for several years and some went blind.

Art & Coal — The Black Side seeks to answer the question: In what ways does working underground affect identity? Through installations, photographs, and sculptural works, the exhibit explores the relationships between coal miners and their work, their environment, and each other.

Thomas Virnich, “Tobias, Freiheit spüren” (2018) Installation view, Kunst and Kohle – Die schwarze Seite at Museum DKM (photo: Achim Kukulies, Düsseldorf)

The exhibition is Duisburg’s farewell to coal. At the end of 2018, the last two hard coal mines in Germany will close down, putting an end to the nation’s industrial era. In Ruhr, which is one of the world’s largest coalfields, coal has been more than an important industry; it has defined the identities of local residents and their cultural landscape.

“[Coal mining] was not limited to the pure earning of a living — it produced distinctive peculiarities in living conditions, faith and religion, and even language,” Sarah Kraschewski, a research associate at Museum DKM, told Hyperallergic.

Coal has a long history in Germany as a whole: the first found document for mining coal in the region dates back to the 12th century. It was coal that powered the country’s industrial revolution in the nineteenth century and contributed to rebuilding Germany after the second World War. Now, all of Ruhr is steeped in nostalgia as the “age of coal” comes to a close.

Alexander Chekmenev, “Perevalsk, Lugansk Region” (2003) (courtesy: Galerie Clara Maria Sels, Düsseldorf © Alexander Chekmenev)

The Black Side exhibit in Duisburg is part of a much larger project, called Art & Coal, a collaboration between 17 museums that have simultaneously opened exhibitions on the subject, across 13 cities in the Ruhr region. The collaborative project brings together 150 artists and 400 artworks in sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, video and sound art and installations. Featured artworks range from Ukrainian photographer Alexander Chekmenev’s photo series documenting the lives of miners in Donbass, Ukraine, to German sculptor Olaf Metzel’s eclectic installations, made of found objects, which reflect on industrialization and consumerism.

It may at first be a little difficult to imagine an industrial material like coal being amalgamated with art, but art and culture have been an integral part of the transformation of Ruhr since the decline of industry. In 2008, the RuhrKunstMuseen, an art cooperative of 20 museums, was founded to organize collaborative art projects, and the city of Essen, a former mining town in the Ruhr region, was named an official European “Capital of Culture” in 2010. Throughout the region, coal mining complexes have been turned into spaces for culture highlighted by architecture and museums.

This year, in Ruhr, there is a lot of reflecting on the past, and a concerted effort to look back with pride. There has been a backlash against coal in the country as Germany moves towards renewable energy sources (even though it continues to import cheaper coal and mine lignite). For the people of the region, most of whom have families that were associated with coal mining, restoring and preserving respect for the coal era is an important endeavor. Art exhibitions, commemorative shows, events and celebrations intended to highlight the culture and heritage of coal mining in the area are planned throughout the year.

Ibrahim Mahama, “Coal Market” (2018) (photo: Roland Baege)

Art & Coal addresses its main theme retrospectively, but also seeks to look forward, to reflect on life after coal. To create the most provocative of the featured works, called “Coal Market” (2018), Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama transformed a moated castle into a work of art by covering it with jute charcoal sacks. Built in 1243, Strünkede Castle is a relic from the pre-industrial times and much loved by the people in the city of Herne, an old coal mining city. The coarse sacks that cover the castle are produced in Asia, and are marked with the code of the companies that used them, symbolizing globalized trade. They remind the viewer that coal will still be produced in Asian and African countries, and will likely be imported back into Germany.

Some of the works in The Black Side subtly look into the future while referencing the past. In “The Beauty of the Banal” (2018), photographer Götz Diergarten traces the architecture of miners’ settlements in Duisburg. His photographs, many of which are of windows that appear alike, emphasize the individual designs that exist within uniformity. He does not show any people, but the streaks of individuality hint at the humanity, and the closeness and camaraderie of people who work underground.

An installation by the poet Barbara Köhler, “Lethe” (the Greek word for oblivion), features words and phrases borrowed from miners’ terminology, black text on a black surface, asking the viewer to pay attention to the language that may survive as a remnant of the coal era.

Helga Griffiths, “18C – Erinnerung an eine verflüchtigte Landschaft” (2018)

“Good art always anticipates the future,” says Professor Ferdinand Ullrich, project manager for Art & Coal, who has been working on the exhibit since 2011. “Even if coal mining is over, there will be something fascinating, an aesthetic sense, which will be kept by the material, the people and the landscape which is shaped for generations.” He cites the work of artist Helga Griffiths, who, in her exhibition in the museum of Mülheim an der Ruhr, depicts a laboratory where she produces perfume from coal. “Maybe this is the future of coal,” Ullrich says.

A striking installation by acclaimed British artist Richard Long highlights the raw material of coal. To set up the sculpture, organizers of The Black Side brought in a ton of anthracite coal from the mine at Ibbenbüren, one of the two remaining active mines in Germany, which will close down in December. Long arranged the coal on the floor in three circles, which seem incongruent in an indoor gallery space. In their circularity, they evoke how the past and the future are fused together. Neatly arranged, dense and dark, they emphasize the beauty of raw coal, the blackest of black.

Richard Long, “Bark Circle” (1993) (photo by Achim Kukulies)

Kunst & Kohle — Die schwarze Seite (Art & Coal — The Black Side) continues at Museum DKM (Güntherstraße 13, 47051 Duisburg, Germany) through September 16, 2018. 

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