"When a special exhibition on the topic of art and coal is established in 17 out of 20 museums across 13 cities, there's only one thing I can say: fantastic."
(Bärbel Bergerhoff-Wodopia, board member of the RAG-Stiftung, 2018)
As the historic moment at which hard coal extraction would be concluded in the Ruhr area for good approached in 2018, few were unmoved by the upcoming milestone. A sense of welcoming the future and general gratefulness were high on the agenda. To this end, the 20 RuhrKunstMuseen had already long since made a decision – this called for an extensive exhibition project to look back on the significance of industry for the culture of the area: Kunst & Kohle.
The city-spanning circuit of corresponding solo exhibitions was carried out under the patronage of Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. As an "exhibition of exhibitions" – a concerted effort from 17 museums across 13 cities – "Kunst & Kohle" examined the region's "black gold" through more than 150 artworks from international artists across a combined internal and external space measuring 20,000 m². The major show used art to discuss the significance of coal to both the area and the world in frank terms, also making reference to the future and perpetual challenges that we will face in an era which no longer relies on coal as its primary source of energy. A comprehensive narrative made up of intense images in forms such as paintings, installations, photos, films and music, presented over the course of half a year, provoked discussions. Discussions surrounding what it means to phase out coal mining in general, and what effect this will have on the Ruhr area in particular.
Each museum contributed its own take on the matter in the form of its own exhibition. For example, the Museum unter Tage (MuT) in Bochum's exhibition, "SCHWARZ" (BLACK), focussed on the colour black, not just in terms of coal but also in terms of its use in art. At the Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop, everything revolved around "Bergwerke" (Mines), a series of photographs of mines taken by photographer duo Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Museum Ostwall im Dortmunder U showed the development of amateur art made by miners into contemporary art with their exhibition "Schichtwechsel von der (bergmännischen) Laienkunst zur Gegenwartskunst" (Shift Change from (mining) Lay Art to Contemporary Art), the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg looked at the true value of coal with its exhibition "Reichtum: Schwarz ist Gold" (Opulence: Black is Gold), while the Museum Folkwang in Essen explored how industry changes a landscape in "Ideallandschaft: Industriegebiet" (Ideal Landscape: Industrial Area). The Flottmann-Hallen Herne examined the key materials wood and coal in "Holz und Kohle" (Wood and Coal), while "The Battle of Coal" was displayed in the Skulpturenmuseum Glaskasten Marl, the LUDWIGGALERIE Schloss Oberhausen explored related comics and cartoons in "Comics und Cartoons von Kumpel Anton bis Walter Moers" (Comics and Cartoons from Buddy Anton to Walter Moers) and the Märkisches Museum Witten discussed the beginning of the coal mining industry, as well as its high and low points, in "Auf- und Abstieg" (Ascent and Descent). In Herne, Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama attracted a great deal of attention when he covered the historic Schloss Strünkede with an installation made from second-hand jute sacks as part of his "Coal Market" exhibition.
In the 10 years of its existence, celebrated in 2018, the RuhrKunstMuseen network had never put on such an extensive exhibition. A total budget of 2.5 million euros was placed at its disposal. Kunst & Kohle was complemented by a diverse programme of events and outreaches, which offered combinable tickets, bus and bike tours, guided tours and presentations, as well as special offers for families, children and the elderly.
However, October 2018 by no means spelled the end for Kunst & Kohle. Those who are curious as to the effect this art had on the Ruhr area need only browse through the 17 volumes of the Kunst & Kohle-Catalogue, which weighs in at a hefty 15 kilograms. Measuring just under half a metre when displayed on a shelf, bound in black and affectionately called "Der Klotz" (The Chunk), the 1,400 pages of the catalogue provide a documentary-like overview of the event: who was involved in the big Kunst & Kohle exhibition project? Which museums favoured which topics? What aspects were on display? What visions and criticism did art express with regard to the end of mining in the Ruhr area? The boxed set of books can be bought in the participating museums for the price of 100 euros. However, the richly-illustrated volumes can also be purchased individually. These take a look back at Kunst & Kohle and record the event for posterity.
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