The Memory of Labour exhibition, taking place from the 8th to the 22nd of June at the Katowice-Szopienice Zinc Rolling Mill, features an innovative series of artistic approaches to industrial culture and industry
And when I say: “Show it! Show the wound that we have inflicted upon ourselves during the course of our development”, it’s because the only way to progress and become aware of it is to show it. - Joseph Beuys
The journey took only a few hours but it seemed like I travelled through a completely different land. The landscape changed rapidly. First were the slag heaps looming in the distance, next the workers’ terraced houses of red brick, a staple of the Upper Silesia region and, as the train approached the centre of Katowice, pre-war mansions, which emerged from between the rows of unremarkable blocks of flats.
Then, of course, was the newfangled railway station with its hulking shopping mall, which has only recently replaced the late-modernist terminal from the 1970s. And then on again we drove, through the bustling downtown-turned-construction site and into the sleepy suburbs, with dirt roads and stretches of barren land that seemed almost eerie in the setting afternoon sun, to finally reach the grounds of the Zinc Rolling Mill. This was the location of The Memory of Labour – a multifaceted installation directed by Stephan Stroux, who had brought together artists from Poland and Germany to reflect on the region’s tumultuous history and, perhaps, its future.
As I entered the darkened factory hall I had the impression that all the images I had seen on the way had mixed, blending together into an oneiric vision. There was a babel of sounds and voices: an oriental song, chatter, the clanking of metal and a low drone of machinery. On the left beyond the entrance was a sequence of colour snapshots of industrial structures: many dilapidated and abandoned, some given a second life as shopping centres, landscape parks, or museums. Their locations – Bottrop, Dortmund and Essen in Germany, as well as Gliwice, Katowice and Zabrze in Poland – indicating that former factories and mines share a similar fate across Europe.
Several steps further inside stood a steel cubicle with a sliding door. This replica of a mine lift by the artist Baastian Maris, complete with sound and jerks and jolts, marked the symbolic beginning of a journey through the exhibition: down, to dig for the past, to understand the present. It also marked the first of the several stations that structured Mr Stroux’s overarching curatorial narrative. The metaphor of vertical movement was echoed in the nearby video Centrum by Wilhelm Sasnal (Station 2). Presented on five monitors the footage showed groups miners seemingly caught up in an endless loop of descending and ascending shafts, as well as the lowering and hoisting of the chains on which their clothes are typically stored in the bath house during the working day.
While the Zinc Rolling Mill in Katowice’s district of Szopienice is not a mining complex, it was originally part of a massive venture by the Giesche company which built its first zinc-works in the area in the 1830s. Launched in 1904 to boost revenue with refined products, the Rolling Mill was still in operation until some ten years ago, and witness to the dramatic changes that swept the Silesia region for over a century. Much of its equipment and furnishings remain in place, now looked after by an NGO which struggles to establish a museum there.
It is for this very reason – the curious state of being caught between a former industrial complex and a new monument to a bygone era – that Mr Stroux chose the Rolling Mill as the site for his sprawling installation, encompassing works by some twenty artists. The Katowice project is the follow-up to its German instalment which took place in Essen, at the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in 2012. In the case of the latter the narrative revolved around coal, here it focuses on zinc ore.
To speak of the crises that continue to rock Europe is most often to speak of the service sector, the banking system, commerce and taxation. Yet at the same time, it would seem, we are losing sight of a crisis of a different nature, one that cuts deep into the very fabric of our lives. And one with which we would rather not be confronted. In the state of “liquid modernity”, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called the lingering modernisation which, he argued, continues into our era, negotiating one’s own identity is no longer connected to labour. It has been replaced by consumerism. While the relation between labour and capital, as well as employee and employer, is becoming increasingly abstract. At its heart lies a sense of anxiety and helplessness – this also constitutes a point of departure for the exhibition.
To be sure, there is helplessness and bewilderment in the accounts of the former Rolling Mill workers, whose thin, plaintive voices could be heard from the small mounds of earth piled up on the floor of the hall (Station 6.1). Each of these mounds, fitted with a photograph and a loudspeaker, gave an account of the life of one of the zinc-works staff – now reduced to a grotesque heap of soil. No less disturbing were the recordings of the voices of former employees of mines from the Ruhr district, which could be heard through speakers in the corner of the hall (Station 6.4).
While they speak different languages, the experience of these people reveals a lot in common, as though the shafts and tunnels of all mines converged somewhere deep in the centre of the earth. The testimonies were accompanied by sets of photographs from the archive of the Ruhrmuseum, depicting the architecture of the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex (Station 6.2). But these snapshots seemed distant – not only in a geographical sense – the sights they portrayed were orderly, methodical, and already belonged to the realm of the museum display rather than to real life.
Bits and pieces of real life, however, were to be found in the photographs of Arkadiusz Gola, in his series Riviera on the Coal Spoil Heaps (Station 4). In this rather nostalgic and personal account, wide shots of desolate Silesian landscapes feature miniscule figures sunbathing and relaxing; unaffected by the surrounding scenery, as though they were desperately trying to “act casual”, like astronauts playing golf during a lunar landing.
Close by one finds a selection of large-scale photographs by Thomas Voßbeck and Anke Illing (Station 5). Originally produced for the book Struktur und Architekt, the works offer a glimpse of what may initially seem like a peculiar way to make industrial interiors more inviting – such as the routine placing of potted plants and greenery in machine rooms (which due to the heat provide perfect conditions for flora). In this way nature is used as ornamentation, but at the same time it transforms the transitional space between the working environment and the outside world into a microcosm – a reflection of the universe in miniature, a reminder to the workers below.
Progressing deeper, into the second hall, one crosses another highly symbolic threshold. A work by Wojciech Kucharczyk, a massive photograph of lush green foliage, has been placed on the floor in the passageway between the spaces. The only way to reach the other side was to walk across it wearing felt slippers (Station 9A). Once there, one could take a look at a set of plates from Andrzej Tobis’ A-Z (Station 10). This ongoing, at times humorous, work by the Polish artist is based on entries from a German-Polish illustrated dictionary published in 1954, which served as the starting point for Tobis’ own visual puns. One the one hand, the photographs seamlessly transition between the two languages, on the other, as if inadvertently, they reveal differences that run deep in both cultures.
On the opposite wall and in a nearby corner was another highlight of the exhibition: a selection of works by the so-called “naïve” painters of Silesia (Station 11). Displayed in the form of a slideshow projection and reproduced plates, the collection tapped the rich and vibrant local tradition of amateur painting, frequently done by miners – including both renowned names, such as Erwin Sówka, Paweł Wróbel (a native of Katowice-Szopienice) and Teofil Ociepka, as well as less established ones such as Krzysztof Webs. Whether conveying visions of fantasy animals from other planets, newlyweds floating above redbrick houses, or holiday festivities, these diverse works share a common feature: a longing for life in its most fundamental forms.
A similar longing, albeit imbued with a strong sense of nostalgia, could be found in a photographic collage and video by Piotr Wójcik (Station 12). The artist captured the gradual disintegration of one of the neighbourhoods in the city of Bytom. Scouting the blocks of flats slated for demolition, he took snapshots of personal objects, elements of furniture and household equipment, and at the same time recorded the vibrant colours of the now abandoned rooms.
The relentless forces of neo-capitalist change seen at work here were also brought to light in a film by Sławomir Rumiak, From Industry to Shopping Mall. Screened against the backdrop of the hall’s end wall, this large-scale projection had the form of several vertical stained glass panels which altogether gave the impression of a church interior. Inside the panels one could see a kaleidoscopic, music-video-like tale of how the site of a former coal mine Gottwald was transformed into one of Poland’s largest malls. Again labour gives way to consumption. Ironically, it is machines that play the key role in both cases.
The symbolic juxtapositions and contrasts between different materials, elements, and ideas were even more pronounced in the second hall of the Rolling Mill. The photograph of the foliage on the floor of the passageway was echoed by a stretch of an actual lawn. Next to it was a section of tracks and a row of hydraulically connected mine carts that sprang to life and hit against each other every few minutes to a loud clank. A few steps further on was another mechanical device: a wheelbarrow fitted with an electric engine caught in endless motion, slowly making its way in circles on the floor. To its side was a broad sheet of polished zinc, serving as a screen for another film by Sławomir Rumiak on the processing of ore.
Last but not least, there were the fire organs by Eddie Egal, a curious apparatus with pipes coiled around the factory’s machines, transforming them into a massive instrument: bursting flames and ominous, hissing sounds. This seeming chaos and disarray conveyed man’s shifting approach to nature: from awe in the face of its power, to harnessing its potential and exploiting it thoughtlessly, to the point at which it reclaims its heritage. At the end of the hall, below the stained-glass projection, stood a row of massive furnaces emanating a steady, greenish glow, not what one might expect. Peeking inside, I again saw the lush, abundant greenery from Wojciech Kucharczyk’s floor piece – only this time it was swaying gently, as if in the wind, accompanied by a gentle yet unsettling soundtrack.
Walking between the machines into a narrow corridor that ran parallel to the long hall, one came across a yet another video work that could be seen as a fitting coda to the whole project – a theatrical adaptation, directed by Mr Stroux, of the book Union der festen Hand written in 1931 by German author and journalist Erik Reger (Heinrich Dannenberger). The novel, part of which was written by Reger while working for Krupp industries in Essen, is a vivid account of the tensions between industrial tycoons, labour, and politics as they developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. This peculiar author’s commentary carries the meaning of the Katowice presentation not only beyond its geographical borders, but also into a wider time frame – casting the present as a point in a broader historical perspective, and prompting us to ask about the future. What is left when things come full circle?
The installation offers no easy answers. What it does, however, is expose the mechanisms underlying the drastic changes and their accompanying narratives – not in a museum interior, but right where they are at work: in the impoverished neighbourhood, before the eyes of its populace, and in a post-industrial site. All of which carry the memory of labour. Following the call of Beuys, it seeks to reveal the wounds of the society rather than conceal them under new layers of life presented to us in the guise of undisturbed progress. Walking around the site of the Zinc Rolling Mill one might come across an inconspicuous mound of earth. Hidden beneath it is the two-storey building of the former electrolysis plant, so contaminated and hazardous it had to be buried after decommissioning. Oddly enough, the soil used to cover the structure came from a construction site in downtown Katowice – a site which is now home to a gallery of contemporary art.
Krzysztof Kościuczuk is an art critic and translator, graduate of the Institute of Art History, University of Warsaw, currently working towards a Ph.D. thesis at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw.
Erinnerung an Arbeit.
The Memory of Labour / Show Your Wound / 13 Stations of the Industry
Artistic director: Stephan Stroux
Katowice-Szopienice Zinc Rolling Mill, 11 Listopada, Katowice
8–22 June 2013