Koen Vanmechelen: The Chicken and its Audience
Nr 02 . 3 juin 2011
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How can the liberating effect of laughter play a part in how an audience gets to comprehend the work of a visual artist like Koen Vanmechelen who uses life fowl as his main subject? Having worked with him over the past eight years on several occasions, I have been able to witness the role of the audience in a very direct way. The following text therefore explicitly takes a highly personal take on this subject.
“Two believers cannot observe one another without laughing.”
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition1
Since the past 13 years Vanmechelen has been dedicated to his ongoing The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, today consisting of fourteen generations with the Mechelse Silkie as it latest addition.2 It took Vanmechelen a long time to be taken seriously by the art world, mainly because of the ‘material’ he uses, the chicken. For most people the chicken in the first place is an animal that produces eggs and that you can eat, hardly material for high art, rather for hilarious animation films like Chicken Run or Chicken Little. The initial response of most people when they see live chickens in a museum or gallery context is therefore first one of disbelief and then either a smiling or even roaring one. It is exactly this aspect of laughter when confronted with his work that is both a back draw and an advantage. There are obviously different kinds of laughter. Being laughed at in the art world for a long time as « that man with his chickens » obviously was the back draw. But the smile of the audience can also be the response that opens up understanding for what Vanmechelen actually deals with and is certainly an indication of the intensity of exchange that people will have with his work.
To be honest it is not only smiling faces that Vanmechelen’s work is confronted with. Quite often there is also a reaction of utter outrage. Something strange happens when we bring living animals in a gallery or museum. It is quite all right to have gigantic chicken batteries, but as soon as when well looked after chickens are brought within an art context, people suddenly feel they have to react.
The first time I showed The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, presenting The Mechelse Giant, was during « FEB.3.2002 », a group show on dating and meeting.3 We placed Vanmechelen’s chickens in the open-air patio in the middle of the museum, making sure they had sufficient space and freedom to run around. Some visitors however found it was a scandal and threatened to involve Gaia, the Belgian organization for animal rights. This organization, and its foreign equivalents pose a constant threat to his work, however good their intentions are. If there is however one man that deeply cares for the animals he works with than surely Koen Vanmechelen. What those visitors of the « FEB.3.2002 » show did not see – or did not take into account – was the combination with the more than life size photographs of the crossbred chickens on display on one of the museums walls. These portraits highly personalize an animal that is usually only seen as anonymous meat. Vanmechelen humanizes the animal through these portraits, which also connects with his statement that The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is not so much about chickens as it is about humans.
The reactions to his work make clear that it apparently asks for an intensive kind of attention. As I was working at the museum at the time, being its director-curator, I was of course privileged. By being present considerably longer than any average visitor I for instance learned to understand that chickens have their own way of communication. I remember fondly that as soon as one of them was about to lay an egg, the ladies would go all excited just until the egg would be there, making noises that are actually quite comparable with roaring laughter. Obviously this is a clear example of how we tend to read into animals, humanizing them yet in another way. Still this observation added considerably to my appreciation and understanding of what The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is about. But then I already appreciated it and was it not exactly the audience that had to be convinced? Surely we could not expect visitors to return endlessly or to stay for a considerable longer time in the exhibition?
Viewers of his work also tend to be suspicious of the fact that Vanmechelen crossbreeds his chickens and connect this with the problematic around cloning. Seeing this in an art context is unsettling to them even if in crossbreeding Vanmechelen is able to safe some of the chickens from going extinct, as was the case with the British Redcap. It is exactly the usual inbreeding in order to get the kind of chicken that is best for the market, that has brought forth highly national tinged specimens of chickens like the French Poule de Bresse (basically a living French flag with its red comb, white body and blue feet), or the American Giant (the largest chicken in the world). Vanmechelen slowly brings back the chicken’s true potential by crossbreeding it. When he was invited to participate in the group show ‘A Shot in the Head’ at Lisson Gallery, London (2000), he went looking for a British chicken he could crossbreed with his Mechelse Bresse, the result of his crossbreeding the Belgian Mechelse Koekoek with the French Poulet de Bresse. Vanmechelen found the almost extinct and infertile Redcap that in the gallery nevertheless happily went on to produce the Mechelse Redcap. For Vanmechelen this was obvious proof of the importance of diversity and of mixing, whether it is of race, identity or discipline. This inherent message is the reason why his project finally gained wide philosophical, political, social and scientific importance. The project is also intriguing on an artistic level through its daring mix of disciplines in which the performative gets a complete new dimension, both through the presence of the chicken as through the exchange with the audience.
In one of my most recent dealings with Koen Vanmechelen for the project and exhibition « Parallellepipeda », on the collaboration between scientists and artists, we showed his Golden Spur.4 The rooster that is the subject of this work was born blind and had no spur, making him the subject of ridicule and derision in the chicken hen. In collaboration with stomatologist Luc Vrielinck, Vanmechelen decided to give the rooster a golden spur that almost immediately handed the animal back his dignity. This rooster was shown on his own in the exhibition, in a more than spacious cage and cared for really well. But visitors would nevertheless react on the fact that he was alone and wore this spur golden spur, seeing this as a sort of abuse. The museum staff put much effort in explaining that chickens are actually solitary animals and that the spur had helped the rooster in no small matter to survive the aggressive ridicule of his fellow roosters. Without the spur it was seen as conspicuous, with the spur – golden or not – it was accepted. Together with being a crossbreed, this rooster also had a considerably longer life span than the average one. So all in all it had only gained from being included in an artwork.
As is to be expected, the relation with an audience when confronted with this kind of projects is rather complex.
It is not so much problematic that part of them initially react adverse; maybe it would even be more suspicious if an audience would be all uncritically in awe from the first moment on. Contemporary art and/or science are mend to shift borders and peoples expectations. It is quite natural to not immediately agree, to not be as adventurous and curious as the artist himself or his collaborators. It becomes however dangerous when this reaction would prevent to continue this kind of innovative projects situated between art and science. Luckily Vanmechelen has no inquisition to answer to like Paolo Vernonese once had.5 Making sure his work is on display as often as possible and supplying sufficient information on the ideas that lie behind it might be a solution.
When invited for Parallellepipeda, Vanmechelen asked if he could collaborate with the distinguished genetic researcher Jean-Jacques Cassiman who gladly agreed. This certainly is not a minor fact. Cassiman and Vanmechelen are currently investigating the importance of chicken genetics for human beings with the first results due later this year. Cassiman is quite intrigued by this project that at its origin is not exactly « scientific », but rather builds on intuitive insight coupled with curiosity and an interest in collaboration. It is rather crucial that a scientist like him wants to get involved and it certainly helps in convincing an audience. As Cassiman stated at the start of their collaboration, the difference with his kind of research is that Vanmechelen, when starting his project, just used any Mechelse Koekoek and French Poulet de Bresse he could lay his hand on. He did not research their genetic background as Cassiman would have done, but, as an artist probably would, was interested in other properties such as the physical aesthetics and philosophical message of his project. It is quite possible that this initial spontaneity, which adds to the quality of The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, also is the appeal to Cassiman. On the other hand it is also Cassiman’s spontaneity that helps in convincing a doubting audience. He not only is a highly respected scientist but in Belgium is also widely known for his musical background. When he was invited to a talk show to explain about his collaboration with Vanmechelen the response of an audience was immediately quite relaxed and open, probably also because of Cassiman’s open attitude.6
So let’s return to the aspect of laughter that clearly comes in many guises. Almost from the start Vanmechelen’s project could count on the cooperation and friendship of internationally renowned scientists, collectors and curators. As Cassiman and Vanmechelen demonstrate, friendship rarely goes without laughter. It is this high-minded spirit that is the real fuel for new inventions, new visions. So let people laugh, in the end it is probably the chicken that laughs best.
Citer cet article
Edith Doove, « Koen Vanmechelen: The Chicken and its Audience », [Plastik] : In vivo, L’artiste en l’œuvre ? #02 [en ligne], mis en ligne le 3 juin 2011, consulté le 03 juin 2023. URL : https://plastik.univ-paris1.fr/koen-vanmechelen-the-chicken-and-its-audience/ ISSN 2101-0323