Stephan Vanfleteren & Stef Van Alsenoy
WHY THE EXPO KOMPELKOPPEN ?
This autumn marks 30 years since the coal mine of Zolder, the very last in the Benelux region, was forced to close. The end of an industrial era. The municipality of Heusden-Zolder and cultural centre MUZE commemorate this closure with the project MIJN|KRACHT from 1 July to 31 December 2022. A broad interdisciplinary and socio-artistic project consisting of theatre, film, music and visual arts to highlight the heritage of the coal mines and their future. Among other things, we presented the big theatre production 'Wit goud, zwart stof', the children's book 'Licht in de tunnel' (author Bart Demyttenaere, Clavis publishing house) and the musical creation 'Suite voor de Laatste Mijn' with, among others, mouth harmonica virtuoso Steven De bruyn. All these productions are inspired by the mining past and based on a strong collaboration with miners and art lovers originating in the region. The MIJN|KRACHT project is subsidised by Flanders as a supra-local and transversal cultural project.
A FASCINATING LOOK INTO THE SOUL OF MINERS
The highlight of MIJN|KRACHT is the exhibition KOMPELKOPPEN. The municipality of Heusden-Zolder & CC MUZE asked Belgian photographer Stephan Vanfleteren whether he wanted to make a series about miners who were active in the Limburg mining region, as a tribute to a generation of exceptional workers. Vanfleteren accepted this assignment with great passion and fervour and immediately involved his artistic brother Stef Van Alsenoy. Vanfleteren & Van Alsenoy had previously worked together on powerful projects 'Surf Tribe', 'Atlantik Wall', 'Ickx/Merckx', 'En Avant, Marche' and 'In Het Zwart'.
During spring and summer nearly 100 miners were gathered - via a widely shared open call - to be photographed in a studio setting at CC MUZE. Incidentally, MUZE is located in the former elevator control building of the Zolder coal mine. The initial idea was to create 30 portraits of people of various nationalities and functions in the coal mine. But Vanfleteren & Van Alsenoy's energy knew no bounds and they went deep, very deep. In the end, KOMPELKOPPEN shows 60 unique images. Vanfleteren sculpts his subjects with intense contrasts and subtle shades of grey. He delves into the depths, in search of light in the miners' gazes. The exposition is a visual document comprising penetrating portraits of workers lifted from darkness. Besides portraits of characterful faces of various nationalities, group photographs and still-lifes, a contemporary and abstract film projection is also on show, made alongside Stef Van Alsenoy. In addition, Van Alsenoy enchants the expo into an uncanny soundscape using authentic sound fragments. A unique experience as a valuable reminder of a bygone Belgian industry and its workers.
The images are presented in a large black box in the majestic compressor room of ZLDR Luchtfabriek, where visitors can wander among the impressive machinery. All the miners photographed were also interviewed, resulting in almost 18 hours of testimonies about the extraordinary mine work. Van Alsenoy reduced these interviews to a 165-minute document. You can discover these testimonies in a room next to the exhibition.
KOMPELKOPPEN was made with the support of the municipality of Heusden-Zolder, culture centre MUZE, ECRU (heritage and culture cell of the mining region), CVO De Verdieping, vzw Het Vervolg, vzw Vriendenkring KS, Mijnmuseum Beringen, Mijndepot Waterschei & Flanders (supra-local culture decree).
Stephan Vanfleteren (°1969) is one of Belgium's most renowned photographers. Among the general public, he is praised mostly for his penetrating black-and-white portraits of famous and anonymous people. However, his oeuvre is much more diverse than that. Vanfleteren started his career as a press photographer, making fascinating reports of events that dominated the news. Later, he began to elaborate on a variety of themes in extensive photo reports, ranging from shop fronts to a journey along the mythical Atlantic Wall. For his most recent work, Vanfleteren retreated to his studio to focus on his own version of classic themes such as nude portraits and still-life photography. In the latter, titled 'Nature Morte', he portrayed dead animals found near his home in colour. Whereas most of his images are very time-bound, this series marks an evolution in his work towards a more timeless approach and subject matter. Whether in his journalistic, documentarian or artistic photographic projects: Vanfleteren always stays true to his signature style and aesthetic. A palette of black and white, the use of sharp contrasts and well-defined details are trademarks he developed over the years. His recent colour work also shows his impressiveness, combined with his craftsmanship, his commitment to the subject which can be landscape, still-life, portrait or nude. His extensive personal stories and reflections on encounters are mesmerising excursions by a photographer who feels as much a witness as an accomplice. Within the sensitive photographer lurks a melancholic soul. In August 2021 Stephan Vanfleteren received a Doctor Honoris Causa at the Free University of Brussels.
Thirty years ago, the last Belgian coal mine closed. Right here in Zolder, miners descended into Limburg's deepest cellar for the last time. During the heyday of production, more than 42,000 workers laboured in the Kempen basin. A restless coal trail from Beringen to Eisden that changed the region forever. KOMPELKOPPEN now digs into the souls of these miners, as a respectful reminder of their courageous labour.
Kompels derives from the German word kumpel, meaning friend, comrade or mate. Working together in the endless underground and looking after each other, because danger lurked behind every corner. Or as a coal miners widow once conspiratorially put it, "There was something down there in the dark that brought them together."
Due to labour shortages in sparsely populated Limburg, workers were recruited all around, even abroad. Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, Poles, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Slovenes, Turks, Moroccans... found a new home in Limburgish towns. Multicultural coexistence in the cite neighbourhoods became a regular occurrence in the once-so-white countryside. A well-known and veritable expression says: 'Down below everyone was black'. Nowadays everyone above is old. Yet this is not entirely true. Some miners weren't even twenty years old when the mines finally closed in 1992 and are now in their young fifties.
In a dark room, right here in the former mine building, miners stood in front of my lens in full costume, as if they had to go straight back into the ground. But not everyone still had their full outfit. Some had thrown everything out because of the bitterness caused by the closure. A few had not put on their attire for 30 years. What followed was not just a visual transformation but often a mental boomerang to their pasts. Often there was stillness. Sometimes the heart broke and a tear flowed. Sadness and nostalgia for something that would never return.
Over 900 Limburg miners lost their lives. Some lost fingers, arms or legs in the underground shafts. Having survived the dangers of greyfire, collapses and mine gas, black lung, broken backs and housemaid's knee due to the gruelling work at the coal front, most of the miners now fight the battle against time. Like everyone else, even the bravest among them will eventually lose out. With KOMPELKOPPEN, some of them have been described and preserved by the light.
STEF VAN ALSENOY
Stef Van Alsenoy is a sound designer, photographer and recording engineer. He created surround soundscapes for, among others, Stephan Vanfleteren, Brussels Philharmonic and the Flemish Radio Choir, theatre maker Kris Verdonck and also for his own work as a photographer. For Stephan Vanfleteren, he created soundscapes for the permanent exhibition 'Atlantik Wall' in Raversyde and for the exhibitions 'Surf Tribe' ('The Wave'), 'Ickx/Merckx', 'En Avant, Marche' and 'In Het Zwart'. In each of these collaborations, the soundscape is an acoustic translation of the space in which the subject of the photography or film is located. These are never literal translations, but rather abstract impressions, sound textures, organic sound waves that try to capture the essence of time and space in sound. Minimalism and the use of 'found' sounds are at the heart of his soundscapes, in which the emphasis is not a compelling musical accompaniment but rather an acoustic presence as an undertone to the exhibitions and performances. The use of surround sound in these soundscapes creates another dimension in the process. In his photography, form and texture of the images are especially important, and there is also a lot of room for emptiness, complementary to the use of silence in sound. His series of photographs and time lapses of clouds emphasise especially shape, contours and textures in the creation, evolution and eventual dissolution into nothingness of these clouds. To Stef Van Alsenoy , sound design and photography are two complementary art forms. For his exhibitions 'Mono No Aware' at Concertgebouw Bruges and 'Clouds Around Mount Fuji' at Tour & Taxis in Brussels, he created minimalist soundscapes that interacted with his cloud photography and time lapses. Stef Van Alsenoy is also a recording engineer. He has been the resident recording engineer of the Ancienne Belgique concert hall in Brussels for 25 years already. He recorded about 2,500 concerts for radio, TV, CD, DVD and streaming, including recordings for The Cure, Massive Attack, Oasis & Buena Vista Social Club. He handled recording and (surround) mixing of live DVDs and CDs of Faithless, Serge Lama, Roisin Murphy, etc. and mixed studio albums of Axelle Red, Daan & Dead Man Ray, among others.
From the very beginning of the creation of the soundscape for KOMPELKOPPEN, the intention was not to create a collage of specific sounds out of the mine, but rather a permanently present impression of how a mine 'sounds'. How the sea 'sounds', for example, cannot be captured in a few separate recordings of waves. The experience is much more complex: What does the sea sound like up close, from afar, in the water, during a storm, on a hot summer day, against the rocks or on the sand? Not only those objective sounds, but also subjective experience, colour that acoustic impression, such as when the sea sounds dangerous and threatening, or just soothingly minimalist. Trying to capture that complex experience in an abstract soundscape is the challenge. In mines, this is about depth, darkness, a subterranean city that is vast yet empty. It is about alienation from above-ground reality, about dangerous nature and machinery, and ultimately about the daily return to life on the surface, a life that was harder to grasp for some mine workers than the hard labours and also the underground camaraderie. I was lucky enough to still be able to descend into 'the pit' in the late 1980s. I got to experience that improbable acceleration of the elevator down the shaft. That endless train ride in the dark, where any sense of distance and direction disappears, has always stayed with me. That spectacular connection between surface and underground. And then another half-hour's walk to the front where the coal was 'made'. But without the dust and heat and noise of the machines, because we were just luxury visitors. However, for the creation of the soundscape, this experience was very inspiring.
The people at the Province of Limburg's video service have already digitised an improbably large archive of old footage, and that too was a great inspiration for the soundscape. One of the images was an empty mining corridor where patches of activity in other rooms and galleries could still be heard from all directions. An uncanny feeling with, on the one hand, the connection with the other miners beyond and, on the other, the hostility of darkness staring back at the viewer. This image with this sound was the impetus and inspiration for the creation of the soundscape and is also included in it. This is then further expanded on with own recordings and sound sources and also a few snippets of sounds from the mines such as the lifts, the conveyor belts, the trains....
The soundscape also interacts with the abstract film Stephan and I made, which revolves around the same theme: an abstract impression of the underground world of the miners. The soundscape syncs up with the video but also stands alone, as an acoustic framework for the whole exhibition. To enhance this unworldly experience, 14 loudspeakers have been set up, not only at the level of the pictures but also above the exhibition space and under the cover plates, to reinforce the experience of verticality and depth.
Stef Van Alsenoy