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Mining riches in Chemnitz

A new art and sculpture trail pays tribute to 850 years of mining history in Central Saxony, writes Prachi Joshi
Last Updated : 23 June 2024, 01:46 IST

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“Who wants to go into the mine,” asks the guide, and I promptly raise my hand. I don a protective cloak and hard hat and step into the elevator clutching a miner’s lamp. It’s a tight squeeze with five of us in the tiny (faintly rattling) elevator. But it’s a short ride and soon we are 100 metres under the surface of the earth. Tunnels snake off in different directions, mining equipment stands at the ready, and a mine train awaits on its tracks. I’m at Zinngrube Ehrenfriedersdorf, a defunct tin mine turned experiential museum 25 km (40 min) south of Chemnitz in Central Saxony, Germany. On a guided tour, you can learn how tin and silver were mined in the often difficult working conditions; the highlight is, of course, a chance to ride the mine train!

Aboveground, behind the mine museum, stand “The Wild Boars”, an installation by German sculptor and installation artist Carl Emanuel Wolff. The open-air bronze sculpture features three life-size wild boars standing, sitting, or lying amidst the rocks. Wolff carved them out of the damp model material with his bare hands and simple tools, with traces of his work clearly visible. The patinated gunmetal bronze contains tin as well as iron, the ore for which was mined in Ehrenfriedersdorf until 1990. The sculpture references the local legend that wild boars helped discover the mineral in the region around 800 years ago. After a mud bath, tinstone shimmered in their fur, which encouraged locals to search for the ore! This is just one of the many installations on a unique art and sculpture trail that’s being created in the region. Chemnitz will be the “European Capital of Culture” in 2025 together with 38 nearby municipalities, including Zwickau and the Ore Mountains. The title is awarded to emphasise the cultural wealth of the region and Chemnitz has chosen to pay tribute to its mining legacy with the so-called Purple Path. This art and sculpture trail features works by more than 70 international and Saxon artists and connects the city of Chemnitz with the other municipalities. The artworks are placed in socially and symbolically significant locations.

About 30 km (40 min) from the mine, in the Kurpark (spa garden) of Bad Schelma, I stand gaping at ‘Stack’, a tall abstract sculpture by noted Anglo-German sculptor Tony Cragg. Liverpool-born Cragg has been residing in Wuppertal (near Düsseldorf) since 1977. He is known for his iconic stacks inspired by the geometrically stacked legacies of the industrial age, which are “keys to a past time that is our present” according to him. His sculpture in Bad Schelma was created in 2019, a stunning patinated bronze structure that brings to mind natural phenomena — weathered rock, perhaps or swirling plumes of smoke. Its location is also not an accident and is meant to reflect the history of the region. It stands right next to what was a uranium ore mining shaft from which the Soviet-German company Wismut AG extracted the uranium required for its bomb production and nuclear power plants (including Chernobyl). In the process, it destroyed the villages and natural environment in Bad Schlema.

Other notable sculptures on the Purple Path include the “Petrified Wood Circle” by Turner Prize winner and pioneer of British Land Art, Richard Long. As the name suggests, it’s a circle of petrified, densely packed pieces of wood — half cedar and half American redwood — lying directly on the ground. Per Long, it’s meant to visualise the layer “that lies on top of thousands of other layers of human and geographical history on the surface of the land.” This is a travelling exhibit, which is currently to be found in the Church of St James in Chemnitz. It will later move to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St Mary in Zwickau. Both cities lie on the Saxon Way of St James which leads to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, which was the European Capital of Culture in 2000. Apart from its mining history, Chemnitz was once Germany’s leading industrial city, known for manufacturing everything from locomotives to textiles. In a sprawling red-bricked building with distinctive arches stands the Chemnitz Industrial Museum. Built in 1907, this was once a locomotive factory and foundry that was functional until 1981. Today, the museum showcases over 200 years of Saxon industrial history. It is a treat for children and adults alike, featuring everything from vintage cars and historical textile machines to modern industrial robots. However, I am most enamoured by the museum’s centrepiece — a still functioning single-cylinder counterpressure steam engine from 1896. It stands in its very own engine house, which is richly decorated with tiles and paintings, all dating to 1911. The well-maintained engine not only looks spectacular but you can also see it in action on the last Sunday of every month. Much like the sculptures along the Purple Path, it is a work of art in itself.

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Published 23 June 2024, 01:46 IST

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