Canary in a Coal Mine

Canary in a Coal mine

For almost a hundred years, and up to some thirty years ago, when western Europe was still producing coal, the humble and fragile canary was destined to play an almost sacrificial role to save men’s lives. Carried into the dark bowels of the earth in small cages, this minute creature – the colour, memory, promise and celebration of sunlight – provided an early warning of noxious, invisible and odourless, gasses to miners in their daily dangerous descents to their dark Hades.
One could hardly imagine a more extreme case of human dependence on such a fragile creature. Nor indeed can one comfortably contemplate that the massive extraction of coal that led to our global industrialisation was dependent on the domestication – and sacrifice – of the humble canary.

And if the singing of birds had to be sacrificed to save men’s lives, let us not forget that it was only the (human) song and music of Orpheas that could pierce the silence of the “wealthy” (“Plouton”) Hades (“Unseen”), to reclaim his Eurydike….




Norbert Francis Attard(MT)


Project Space Tilburg, Tilburg, The Netherlands


Malta Art Fund
SEA Foundation

Norbert Attard and VanGerven|VanRijnberk present some fifteen works amongst them three cages to symbolize the three coal mines in Genk, Zwartberg, Winterslag and Watershei. They are painted gold to evoke the complex associations of coal-gold. Some are obvious: coal was the Western world’s gold that powered its industrialization. And birds in golden cages are of course the stuff of countless and well-known metaphors But the artists’s intent is more serious than a mere play of witty associations and evocations, although these are certainly important. For they are posing questions about post-industrial landscapes – in this particular case a gigantic tripod that has become part of industrial archaeology – pondering whether we might not, in effect now, be that proverbial canary in that cage?