“With Coal, we have light, strength, power, wealth, and civilisation; without Coal, we have darkness, weakness, poverty, and barbarism. The most civilised nations of the world are those consuming the most Coal.” William Jasper Nicolls 1898
This winter, Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) premieres Song for Coal, an immersive audio-visual work by Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson in YSP’s newly restored 18th century St. Bartholomew’s Chapel. The exhibition runs from 10 January to 19 April 2015. Song for Coal explores the physical and cultural properties of coal, considering the black sedimentary rock as a cypher for environmental and conceptual impacts of our carbon based economies. Song for Coal takes a form based on the flamboyant tracery of the apocalyptic rose window of Sainte Chapelle, Paris. Broken down into 152 separate panels, each section of the rose hosts its own individual film, creating imagery that is visually rich, slowly evolving and meditative, with kaleidoscopic patterns of coal as a mineral, economic driver and a source of iconography.
The human voice is a central and powerful element in the composition of this work. Working with Opera North singers and Music Director Justin Doyle, Crowe and Rawlinson have created a plainsong, based on The Coal Catechism by William Jasper Nicolls. This 1898 publication was one of many secular catechisms produced that century, which provided educational insights into the industrial age by means of question and answer dialogues. Song for Coal however is far from quotidian, where the chanting incantation of this secular catechism provides the pulse of the work’s mesmeric and mandalic unfolding.
By the end of this decade coal is likely to rival oil as the world’s biggest source of energy. It is a material which has conditioned the shift from agrarian to urban societies and, as a driver of climate change, will continue to define transformations in human life into the 21st century.
Looking at human-induced climate change and exploring apocalyptic fears, Song for Coal considers the Industrial Revolution as an ongoing process. The project – coinciding with the end of the 30-year anniversary of the UK miners’ strike and an ongoing collaboration with the National Coal Mining Museum – offers a poetic and historical response to an industry, which still figures large in the cultural memory of the region. Indeed, the Bretton Estate from which YSP has grown, is situated on the Yorkshire Coalfield and drew its wealth from the commodity, making Song for Coal especially relevant.
The artists have worked with the collection of the National Coal Mining Museum and Drax Power Station, both within a few miles of YSP, in filming sections of the work. They have also employed the rare practice of cannel coal carving to create objects and figurines which were later burned in front of the camera. The film highlights three carbon stages: the volatile stage, the carboniferous, and the industrial age.
Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Song for Coal (still), 2014. Courtesy the artists and YSP
Crowe and Rawlinson, born respectively in Barnsley and Macclesfield, work collaboratively between studios in Berlin and Manchester. Their work is primarily concerned with the languages of power, with its grammar and rhetoric. Their projects address questions around faith, politics, national identity and the environment.
Recent projects include exhibitions at Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sunderland and VulpesVulpes, London, and a commission for The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. They were short-listed for the Northern Art Prize in 2009 and Song for Coal will form part of a solo exhibition of their work at MEWO Kunsthalle, Memmingen, Germany in 2015.