The Emscher river in Germany’s Ruhr area is undergoing a remarkable transformation. As part of an ongoing effort to reinstate the river’s former natural glory, an art tour is organized along its path. These are some of the installations of Emscherkunst 2016.
The Emscherkunst route starts at the source of the river, the Emscherquelle. The Emscherquellhof functions as an information center and exhibition space.
With his project, Ai Weiwei invites the people of the Ruhr area, but also the visitors of the metropolis Ruhr to become part of an art work. It was especially important to the artist to create something that is not monumental, but in human dimensions, something that has a certain lightheartedness and fleetingness. Art becomes part of the moment, she does not leave traces. Communication and interaction between visitors and people shift to the foreground and are an important part of the project.
With the title Aus der Aufklärung Ai Weiwei reflects on the current situation in his home country and concretely refers to the great German exhibition “Kunst der Aufklärung” that was initiated in Beijing in 2011. Ai Weiwei complains about how the exhibition was not discussed enough in public, for him, China is still in its Dark Age. At that time, Ai Weiwei was taken into custody by the Chinese police.
During the rise of the region’s coal industry the Emscher slowly degraded to a heavy industries sewer. During the late nineteenth century it became so toxic that typhus and malaria epidemics regularly followed the frequent floodings.
From 1899 onwards the Emschergenossenschaft, a collaboration by local industry and mayors, addressed the problems by a host of measures like cutting the meanders and lining the straightened river in a V-shaped concrete bedding.
During the following century the focus of the efforts shifted from controlling the symptoms to resolving the pollution causes. The quality of the water slowly improved and the putrid smell disappeared above the concrete canal.
Now the water quality has been restored, the last step of the transformation will be to free the river from its straightjacket and reconnecting the former meanders, returning it to its natural glory.
The Phoenix lake once was a toxic pool containing heavy metals and all sorts of chemical steel industry waste. After the cleanup it is now a leisure area surrounded by luxury appartment buildings.
In 2005 the first cornerstone was laid on the Phoenix area. The work started with full speed to manage the work with over 2,5 million meters of ground motion and 420,000 cubic meters of ferroconcrete. On Oktober 1st 2010 the largest and most highly anticipated milestone could be celebrated: the launch of the flooding of the Phoenix See.
On the Emscherkunst route – but not part of it – just above Phoenix lake is Jan Bormann’s Flüsterbrücke, or Whisper Bridge. Two large dishes on each side of the Emscher make it possible to whisper across sixty meters.
This is an actual conversation, not some random Dutch words. You will have to trust me on that.
Three years ago this installation marked the end of the Emscherkunst route at Dinslaken, where the Emscher flows into the Rhine.
This summer, Reiner Maria Matysik gathers clouds over the idyllic lake panorama at lake Phoenix See’s easter shore. With the help of a machine the lake’s water will be transformed into cloud building steam.
The Munich artist Benjamin Bergmann brings a bit of Venice flair to the Emscher area with his work Chiosco (“kiosk”), and invites visitors on a fictive long-distance journey to Italy during the Emscherkunst: he places a traditional souvenir pavilion – recognizable from Venice – on Lake Phoenix’s (“Phoenix See”) shores.
Yes, this puzzled me too. As an installation playing with a sense of displacement it seems just haphazardly strange, not thoroughly absurd. There seems to be no conceptual link to the route or the Phoenix lake and it does not offer much in terms of visual presence either.
Spirits of the Emscher Valley
While we are on the subject of visual presence, here is a series of sculptures from the other side of the spectrum, or rather beyond that and off the scale altogether.
The Spirits portray historic or fictional residents of cities and areas. The figures tell a story creating a connection between past, present, and future. The artist duo is creating three sculptures for specific places, spread throughout the exhibition course, for the Emscherkunst.
These are two of the spirits.
After Phoenix lake the Emscher continues its course into the eastern part of Dortmund, where a host of installations and exhibitions around the Emscherkunst route can be found. It is a bigger Emscher exiting Dortmund on the west side.
For the 100 days of Emscherkunst, the Berlin based atelier le balto transforms a big, overgrown hazel nut grove close to an autobahn feeder in Dortmund into a walkable, green platform close to the riverside. The grove – grown tight and high – fascinated atelier le balto at first sight: Its inside reminds of a high cathedral, crafted artfully by nature.
Zur kleinen Weile
The amorphous outside confronts the inside’s ideal spherical geometry which is connected to the outside by only a few openings. The immediacy of humanity and nature becomes tangible and the idea of man becoming one with the cosmos amid the acoustically and visually stunning scenery of the Ruhr area in Dortmund palpable.
So there. And nothing about the thing that I liked best about this installation: the weird and playful audio feedback one gets inside the structure.
Up until 2001 Kokerei Hansa produced cokes for the Dortmund area steel industry. Parts of the plant were later repurposed for a climbing wall and an industrial heritage museum. In 2016 it holds three installations from the Emscherkunst route, one of which inside the immense towers above the cokes ovens.
Spirits of the Emscher Valley
The third spirit hovers over a pond on the premises of the former Kokerei Hansa.
The project has a participative approach: To create the sculptures, Lucy + Jorge Orta work together closely with residents from the Ruhr area, people who have relations to the locations where the sculptures will be placed and can tell stories about them. Therefore, they help creating the sculpture’s spirit.
However decorative these sculptures may be, they are rich in conceptual justification. Sadly this justification seems to live outside the work itself and can only be learned through the catalog.
This video installation is presented in the hall where workers stored their clothes after a day on the job. Numerous cages hang by chains from the ceiling in the same way they did throughout the plants active lifespan.
The term Schlagende Wetter (“firedamp explosion”) comes from mining terminology and describes the explosive reaktion of air and mine gas underground. Within the video installation by M+M, which was shot in the Ruhr area, the term also becomes a metaphor for interpersonal tensions.
the Schutzhelme (“Safety Helmets”) of the Korean artist Sujin Do. A bundle of one hundred safety helmets equipped with miner headlamps, attached to a fifty meter-long steel wire, was hanging over the village like a chandelier.
During the second Emscherkunst edition this installation was installed at the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord. I like how this piece is a key to the otherwise closed off insides of the immense industrial complex.
Some parts of the concrete canal are taken underground. Huge wastewater pipes are buried under parts of the Emscher borders, underneath forests and fields.
Walkway and Tower
The walkway guides visitors through the landscape and to the tower: The winding way ascends continuosly and presents new perspectives onto the landscape. The tower itself meets all the demands of a purely functional architecture, conceptional speaking Tadashi Kawamata sees the tower as a sculpture and aesthetical determined shape.
Reaching this installation by foot, after an hour’s walk through muddy paths in a damp forest at 29° Celsius, one cannot help but be underwhelmed by both structure and view from the tower.
So much so that it had almost made us skip the audio installation that was another fifteen minutes down the path. We did not know what that was but we were not sure if we would bother.
Forest (for a thousand years…)
We almost missed this installation after the hot trip to the Walkway and Tower. But it was not too late in the afternoon and we had all evening to cool down so what the heck. Little did we know how rewarding our decision would turn out.
With speakers hanging in a circle of fifty meters around the listening stools, the sounds that fit the location perfectly really come alive. This is only part of the audio-installation. Listen to the other audio scenes in this video.
Sounds from nature like animals, but also the intimate conversation between mother and child take listeners into a dreamlike sphere and kaleidoscopically open multiple scenes drawing in the visitor as if he was a part of the action.
It is hard to say how much our mood added to the experience, but this was definitely the highlight of the Emscherkunst route.
Warten auf den Fluss
In terms of concept and function, this sculptural structure is an architectural proposal: until the new Emscher Valley actually becomes a reality in 2020, the bridge and its three pavilions will serve as a place for “productive waiting”, since it is through here that the re-naturalized Emscher will flow. Waiting for the River is therefore (still) a “sleeping bridge”.
Like in Ai Weiwei’s installation at the source of the Emscher, visitors can spend the night in one of these baracks, making this installation function as an in between stop for visitors following the complete route.
When the Emscher returns to its natural state, the regular flooding needs to be controlled by high water basins like the one put in place just outside Mengede.
Gesellschaft der Amateur-Ornithologen
The artist turned a former gas tank which he had discovered during his research on the Emscher Island at the old water treatment plant in Herne, into an accessible “research station”. From afar the tank looks like a stranded submarine, its interior however reveals the inviting atmosphere of a “Gentleman’s Club”, entirely in the style of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine in Jules Verne’s adventure story “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”.
Yeah well I don’t know about this one. It was the first stop after Forest (for a thousand years..). A hard act to follow.
The artist deploys 60 more than two meter high Breakwater (“Wellenbrecher”) in the form of concrete tetrapods which are commonly used in water engineering to secure shores. Through this, she refers concretely to the location and its protective function: After its final completion, the basin will serve by absorbing flood waves in case of heavy rain.
A gorgeous intervention in this location. Even though it does not speak to me conceptually, this work has a visual quality that somehow makes it fit and unfit for this landscape at the same time.
Rhein Herne Kanal
It is at Horsthausen where the tamed Emscher meets the Rhein Herne channel and starts following its course, only to bend off north further downstream.
In many of his pieces, Ecker uses the abstract as a motif, while the individual elements of the sculpture look like casts of existing objects and everyday forms, and in some cases, they actually are.
And what if they are? What does that say about this location? About the Emscherkunst project? Is there no meaning to this work at all? And is that why the artist could not think of a better name than the location spelled backwards?
Silke Wagner understands the mosaic as a monument of mining history. The solidarity and politicization processes accompanying the mining strikes were crucial for the evolving labor movement and worker culture.
Waste Water Fountain
With Waste Water Fountain, the Danish artist group SUPERFLEX erects a temporary memorial in form of a great fountain amidst the course of a river still carrying waste water on site, at the Stadthafen in Recklinghausen. The Emscher’s industrial image, an open waste water canal, reminds the artists of open intestines, our vital organ.
The end of this year’s Emscherkunst route – for us the beginning – is marked by a celebration: a fountain joyfully boosting waste water up in the air.
On the other side of the bridge a voice slowly and formally recounts chemical elements found in the wastewater flowing through the Emscher bedding. Roman Signer‘s Analyse is the antipode of the Waste Water Fountain. Not a celebration but an investigation, water flowing downwards in stead of upwards. A perfectly contrasting end of the trip.
The Emscherkunst route is a shifting set of installations. Check the website for more information on the precise dates for each of the installations. Bring a bicycle, do not follow the route in reverse like we did, and have fun!