(AFP) - It's back to the mine for dozens of top artists showcased at a disused coal works in northern Belgium this week for an exhibition highlighting the pained end of Europe's industrial era.
Closed a quarter century ago, the huge Waterschei mine in Genk, one of the most important industrial centres of northern Flanders, is playing host to the roving Manifesta art show, the European biennial of contemporary art that changes location every two years.
The mine site's shattered windows, flaking walls and rusted machinery hardly seem the appropriate backdrop for the June 2 to September 30 show, titled "The Deep of the Modern."
Yet the sprawling coal works and its black ring of slagheaps "make it a magical place, very stimulating for artists," said curator Katerina Gregos.
The main 23,000 square metre red brick building, built in 1924 and not spruced up since its closure in 1987, is being used as the central exhibition hall for works including giant installations created by China's Ni Haifeng, France's Christian Boltanski or Spaniard Jota Izquierdo.
But left hanging here and there are yellowed oils from the 19th century or the wagons used to take miners down the pit shafts.
"The site is the trigger for the exhibition," said Cuauhtemoc Medina, a Mexican critic and art historian who is the main curator of the event. "Our aim was to see the works interact as much as possible with the mine."
The exhibition will be one of the first to pay homage to coal, "this dirty matter that is so dangerous to extract but whose artistic value has rarely been exploited," said Gregos.
French surrealist Marcel Duchamp was one of the first artists to draw inspiration from it, hanging 1,200 bags of coal from the ceiling of a museum in 1938.
His spectacular take is replicated at the Manifesta event, which also shows a 1997 Boltanski installation featuring 472 metal boxes and the faded photos of the miners they belonged to.
Manifesta also highlights "the aesthetics of industrial pollution" that drew Impressionist artists such as Monet and Whistler, who were fascinated by London's industrial-era "smog".
"The industrial golden age is well over now in Europe," said Gregos. "Artists currently are facing profound change. They look at this with an open mind, often poetically and even with a utopian bent."
Created in 1996 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Manifesta aims to explore the links between art and politics in a changing society.
"Manifesta aims to investigate and reflect on emerging developments in contemporary art, set within a European context," it says of itself. "Inherent to Manifesta's nomadic character is the desire to explore the pyschological and geographical territory of Europe."