Crossing Chickens with Art
his art increasingly determines its direction. Big glass eggs, blown on Murano, are given metal legs - no eyes - and, answering to the name ‘Walking Eggs’, begin to lead what at first sight looks like a life of their own. They give rise to a new understanding: the world is shaped like an egg; the egg is the potential of and a metaphor for life; it refers to fertility, but at the same time it is the most beautiful of cages. What will come out of each egg is always an open question.
The literary world was also pleased to make Koen Vanmechelen's acquaintance. In 1996,1997 and 1998 he collaborated with the writer Gregie de Maeyer on three ‘children's books’ which, although they play around with the definition of the genre, were warmly received by the publishers Altiora Averbode. Juul tells the story of a child made of wood, who is horribly bullied but for whom there is ultimately a healing. The Cage is an epic account of this subject as the two
Koen Vanmechelen, The Walking Egg. Sculpture 1997, installation 1998, magazine 1999. Photo by Rudi Vanbeek.
authors saw it, at a time when, together with the philosopher Richard Anthone, they were developing programmes in which to philosophise and hypothesise with children. Lastly, Little Glass Man is a delicate and complex story about an unfulfilled childhood wish, a covert illustration of the way the fertility issue and the related scientific research infiltrates Vanmechelen's work. In 1999, together with the gynaecologist Willem Ombelet, head of the Genk Fertility Centre, the artist founded the publication The Walking Egg, an English-language periodical in which ethicists, philosophers and scientists discuss all manner of issues relating to reproduction. Vanmechelen provides artistic comments.
There came a moment when the cook-cum-sculptor became a farmer and his art transcended the material from which it was made. Far removed from all his brooding on materials, Vanmechelen realised that the cage he was looking for was nothing other than the living chicken running around in his back garden. Like the wooden sculptures, the chicken carries its own cage inside it. The chicken is the cage. The chicken is the work of art that has to be continued.
And then things really took off. The starting point was the Mechelse Koekoek - nomen est omen - and the Poulet de Bresse, two varieties of chicken that have from time immemorial been subject to manipulation, breeding and refinement, but which in Vanmechelen's view have never reached their full potential: the Koekoek is too fat and the Bresse slightly too tough. Yet Flanders continues to swear by the former and France claims that nothing ever created has come as close to perfection as the latter. Trying, in the midst of all this, to distinguish between sense and nonsense, Vanmechelen could only observe that it was all very limiting and smacked of navel-gazing. After all, today's Fleming is not the same as yesterday's, is he? An evolution has taken place between the two moments in time. There has been a mixing of breeds and cultures, enriching the line. The artist-cook launched a new concept: the Mechelse Bresse. It was to be a breeding programme, a hybridisation, an artistic enterprise. He would create a new chicken, a chicken as a work of art. In the middle of the woods, Emile Craeghs and Marianne Dirkx, proprietors of the restaurant La Feuille d'Or - where Vanmechelen was then working in the kitchen - offered time and space for henhouses. They believed in the project. Brooding pens were installed and runs for the chickens were built in the cellars under the restaurant. Vanmechelen noted everything down. There were sketches, plans and doodles... There had to be scientific supervision too. Things started to get complicated. Biology, philosophy, statistics, copyright and patents all came into it. But it was decided from the beginning that the Mechelse Bresse, the cross between the Mechelse Koekoek and the Poulet de Bresse, was first and foremost an artistic project.
The objective was achieved. A new variety of chicken was produced. But the breeder has not stopped brooding. On what to do next with the Mechelse Bresse, for instance. The bird had hardly seen the light of day when its creator decided that this was not the end, but the beginning of something totally new: a ‘Cosmopolitan Chicken Project’.
The call of the chicken
Koen Vanmechelen did some research and came up with a new starting point: the Red Jungle Fowl, otherwise known as the hen of hens. It is still found at the foot of the Himalaya, somewhere on the boundary between the woods and the village, in the vast border areas of India and Nepal. It originally lived only in the wild, where it led a quiet, monogamous existence. But about 7,500 years ago it left the safety of the forest to go out into the world. This brings us straight to one of the basic questions in the philosophy of Vanmechelen's project: did man
Koen Vanmechelen, Mechelse Koekoek. ‘In de ban van de ring’, 1999. Provinciaal Museum. Hasselt.
Koen Vanmechelen, Mechelse Bresse. Storm Centres, Watou, 2000.
Koen Vanmechelen, Mechelse Giant. Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle, 2002.
set out to catch the chicken, or did it come to him of its own accord? Either way, what had been a wild species was from that time on subject to domestication. Looking for means of providing for his own needs, man put the chicken through an endless series of mutations and hybrids with one main aim in mind: the production of meat and eggs. Lack of communication between continents and countries has resulted in different varieties occurring in various places, no
Koen Vanmechelen, Genetic Genius. Secret Gardens, Rekkem, 2001. Photo by Alex Deyaert.
two of which look the same. In the course of time the qualities of the country that raised them can be clearly seen in all these chickens: proof of a sense of nationhood. On top of that, domestication and forcing growth for consumption has changed their behaviour patterns: they have become polygamous.
The Red Jungle Fowl was a starting point, the Mechelse Koekoek and the Poulet de Bresse and all the other national varieties of chicken were finishing points. Vanmechelen is now turning them into starting points again and in his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is working towards a completely new climax. With the image of the mother hen of all Red Jungle Fowl in mind he will ‘combine’ all the scattered national varieties of chicken by means of crossbreeding, which means bringing them back to a single cosmopolitan, transparent ‘super-hybrid’. He will even out all the individual characteristics achieved over the centuries by manipulation for purposes of commercialisation and consumption and then patented; he will channel the genetic diversity of the different varieties, while retaining random traces of biological individuality.
To begin with he selected fourteen varieties at random - there will be more: the project will take several decades, perhaps fifty years, perhaps a hundred. He will then crossbreed these varieties in the most ‘natural’ possible way: this is genetic manipulation in the sense that he is always the one to bring two varieties together. He will release the creations thus produced. At no time will he determine in advance how the result should look: the call of the chicken is all-important. The artist will never stake a claim to the end-product. But he will bring order to the chaos that has arisen over the centuries. He will act on behalf of a certain form of globalisation by working, as an instrument of something bigger than himself, on the creation of a new and strong variety of chicken, with fresh blood, and traces and characteristics of all the varieties it carries within it. The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is a perpetuum mobile. The work in progress will nevertheless raise a multitude of questions, and set people thinking about where we and our world are going. Isn't the chicken a good metaphor for man? Koen Vanmechelen's ‘active art’ - distributed over meadows and exhibition halls - will raise a great many fascinating questions. How and in what order this will happen is at the start of the project still a puzzle to the creator. He plays a subservient role in the whole business: he will respond to the call of the chicken.
Drawings on paper and on canvas, in charcoal, coffee, eggshells, egg yolks and so on; collages, montages, installations, models and video pieces; works in glass and carpet and stuffed chickens; talks, debates and discussions with people who are for or against - each and every one is the product of the unceasing twists and turns of the breeder's brain, results hatched from the artist's daily sojourns in his own philosophical incubator, indispensable parts of the neverending genesis of this project. For all that, the project is chiefly sustained by the ‘Installations’ and the ‘Interpretations’. The former are actual presentations for the public, showing intermediate stages, milestones in the growing work of art. The latter can best be described as the materialisation of the accompanying thought processes in the form of digital prints of drawings or - why not? - the ‘breeder's philosophical incubator’.
The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is essentially a story, a family story. About a series of new varieties of chicken that fertilise others. In each chapter a new country takes the stage in the form of a national variety of chicken. The nesting place is very often an installation on location. Preferably in the country where
Koen Vanmechelen, Coming World. Design, 2004.
the newly introduced variety originates. (In the absence of an invitation from that country, the meadows behind Vanmechelen's house, the nesting places in his garden and cellar serve the same purpose.) Despite several recurring ingredients - an incubator, portraits of chickens, living animals, a video presentation - each installation is still a new part of the story. What happens during the presentation is always a sequence that not even the artist can predict. Countless surprises create unplanned chapters. About the birth of a black chick, for example, or a variety that unexpectedly turns out to be monogamous, or another, virtually infertile, which appears to regain its potency through the combination with fresh blood. This is what takes place in the mainstream of activity, in the main installations. In addition there are smaller installations with a smaller story, a chapter on the side or just a marginal note or footnote.1 Curators in many museums and galleries both in Belgium and abroad included (part of) the project in their programmes and so helped to write the story: Jan Hoet in Watou and later in Herford, Jo Coucke in Otegem, Jill Silvermann in London, Adriano Berengo in Miami and various places in Europe, Wim van Krimpen in Amsterdam. All these people are like coaches on the sidelines, godfathers and godmothers to countless hens and chicks, mentors of their keeper.
There is no better all-round summary of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project than Koen Vanmechelen's combined ‘Interpretation’ Pyramid of Time & Pyramid
of Brains. For several reasons the Pyramid of Time and the Pyramid of Brains may well be the philosophical backbone of the whole project. The aim of crossing the chickens is to create a transparent super-hybrid or a new chicken whose internal characteristics will be more important than the external. Equivalent in man to the mental being more important than the physical. In addition, what happens to any particular individual (human time) is essentially no different from
Koen Vanmechelen, Pyramid of Brains/Pyramid of Time. Deweer Art Gallery. Otegem, 2001
what happens on a larger scale in the world as a whole (world time). The desire to understand oneself and the world, to be aware of existence and its meaning, are characteristic of the human species. Self-knowledge is important to those who seek wisdom. ‘Gnoti seauton’, ‘know yourself’. This adage was already to be found above the oracle in Delphi.
The Pyramid of Time study compares the world to an egg. The art is to break through the shell and emerge from the egg. In the Pyramid of Brains the chicken metaphor, as it evolves in Koen Vanmechelen's work, is transposed to human thinking.
Crossing borders, the need for communication, the importance of evolution, longing, freedom, globalisation, cosmopolitanism, anti-racism, tackling surfeit, these are all incorporated into the pyramids. All these topics have come up more or less explicitly in the cross-breeding that has taken place so far. Beneath the surface of the Pyramid of Time - like a mirror-image pyramid - lies the story of the ‘primal chicken’ from which purebred chickens were bred, the primal hen that was raised to the level of a commodity.
In the same reading, it may not be so odd to see the Pyramid of Brains as the reflection of God's reaction to the building of the Tower of Babel: spreading confusion among people, scattering them across the whole surface of the globe. In any case, Koen Vanmechelen's Cosmopolitan Chicken Project brings everyone
Koen Vanmechelen, New Brood. Deweer Art Gallery, Transfo Zwevegem, 2004. Photo by the artist.
the promise of healing. Though one must not ignore the question ‘what next?’. After all, what happens when the top of both pyramids has been reached? What is the value of an individual standing transparently at the top, but seeing no one anywhere around to communicate with, to oppose, to match himself against? No other identities to enrich himself with, none to react against? Despite that, the perpetuum mobile will demand yet another new reflection. It may well be that in order to achieve this we shall need a different universe.
The following work was published on the occasion of the exhibition The Desire of the Mechelse Dresdner at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam (11 April - end of June 2003): Barbara Simons & Wouter Keirse, Koen Vanmechelen. Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. Ghent/Amsterdam: Ludion, 96 pp.
Translated by Gregory Ball
Six generations have so far been crossed. It would take too long to explain all the details, so here is a brief overview:
Mechelse Koekoek + Poulet de Bresse = Mechelse Bresse
(The name of each new generation begins with ‘Mechelse’, followed by the last word in the name of the latest addition).
Installations in Hasselt (Provincial Museum, In de ban van de ring, 1999) and Watou (Poëziezomer 2000, Storm Centers, 2000) were used as breeding-places. The same generation later enjoyed the hospitality of Bourbourg, France (espaces rencontre avec l'oeuvre d'art, The Cosmopolitan Chicken, 2004), Hasselt (Anouk Vilain Art Gallery, Mechelse Bresse First Generation, 2004) and Otegem (Deweer Art Gallery, Second Generation: Mechelse Bresse - Sex and Mortality, 2004).
Mechelse Bresse + English Redcap = Mechelse Redcap
This variety first made its appearance in London (Lisson Gallery, A Shot in the Head, 2000) and this was repeated in Otegem (Deweer Art Gallery, Between Natural Breeding and Genetic Engineering, 2001).
Mechelse Redcap + Jersey Giant = Mechelse Giant
In late 2001, when the artist wanted to involve America in the story, things became more complicated. 11 September 2001 made the world a rather less safe place and Vanmechelen thought it would be decidedly inadvisable to take live animals to the States for cross-breeding so soon afterwards. At the time it was very much the question whether the cross-breeding could still go ahead, and whether he would still proceed with it. He responded to an invitation from Berengo Fine Arts to build an installation at the Miami Art Fair (2002) by sending a work that is a fusion of the Mechelse Redcap with an abstract glass model of the same animal. It was called Artificial Cross-Breeding. The actual crossbreeding took place ‘in exile’, at Vanmechelen's home in Meeuwen. The public was able to see the new chicken in Deurle (Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, FEB.3.2002, 2002).
Mechelse Giant + Dresdner Huhn = Mechelse Dresdner
The cross-breeding took place in Meeuwen; not until later was there the offer of a German ‘breeding place’ (k4 Gallery München, Mechelse Dresdner, 2004).
Mechelse Dresdner + Nederlandse Uilebaard = Mechelse Uilebaard
The story of the fifth generation began in April 2003 when Vanmechelen showed an installation entitled The Desire of the Mechelse Dresdner at the Flemish-Dutch cultural centre De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam. It was an appeal to Dutch museums and galleries to allow the bird to mate with the Nederlandse Uilebaard on Dutch soil. The appeal was answered by the then newly opened Museum of Current Art in The Hague, with a presentation during the Kunstrai in Amsterdam (gem, Glass Crossing Project, May 2003).
Mechelse Uilebaard + Mexicaanse Louisiana = Mechelse Louisiana
Having reached this point in his cross-breeding, Vanmechelen has so far organised two major overviews of the project: one in Hasselt (Museum z33, Red Jungle Fowl: Genus XY, 2004) and another in Zwevegem, where the New Brought Installation added lustre to the jubilee exhibition honouring 25 years of the Deweer Art Gallery (Eclips, 2004).