In the Espace Eiffel, the Grand Palais Éphémère’s extension, a rainbow roughly painted on an uneven cardboard catches the eye. It seems to be springing out of five juxtaposed screens. Seen together, the screens constitute a “living painting,” as Xippas, the gallery presenting it at the Paris+, par Art Basel fair, has termed it.
This striking installation is called Mineur Mineur, and it’s by French video artist Bertille Bak, whose grandfather used to work as a miner in the Pas de Calais region in the north of France. The title refers to underage miners, whom she followed in five different countries (hence the five screens): Thailand and Indonesia, where school is not even an option when you are needed at home, as well as India, Bolivia, and Madagascar, where Bak got to stay only five days before France’s first lockdown.
“Usually, I spend a lot of time with the subjects of my movies, before I start shooting. It was a bit frustrating to have to direct the film from a distance,” the Paris-based artist said in an interview. Instead of shooting the footage herself, she had associations that defend children’s rights capture the images for her.
“Fortunately,” she continued, “I had dreamt of the script and scenes over and over again. I had such a clear vision that everything came together pretty smoothly. I sent out instructions that everyone followed very carefully.”
The resulting work is half-documentary, half-fiction, and it’s exhibited alongside two school benches, which invite viewers to put themselves in the children’s shoes (or lack thereof, since some appear running around barefoot). Melodious trumpets, squeaky flutes, and video game music are part of the sound effects instrumental in blocking out the ambient noise.
The kids are shown getting ready for work, chasing each other on rocky surfaces, and crawling deep into unground tunnels. The narrative culminates in a pseudo-play, with the children wearing miners’ helmets on their heads and ruffs around their necks.
Within the film, are these minors playing aristocrats, or the other way around? What’s their role in society? The film leaves these questions ambiguous.
“I don’t believe activism is the only way to support a cause. I prefer to take a step back and resort, if possible, to poetry,” said Bak.
Some of the children she filmed have been sent to school since the time the footage was shot. Even well after this 15-minute video installation is over, however, you are unlikely to forget these kids, who are no longer minor at all in Bak’s hands.