Sunday, 24 July 2011

Koen Vanmechelen at Venice - nato a venezia

In the 2009 Venice Biennale, we found a strange exhibition by Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen. What seemed to be the main section held a group of composite large birds made of feathers, metal and glass. I didn't like them, didn't find them interesting.
There was also a case with a gold egg in it, which I didn't understand.

But then I read the long label and became fascinated. I think it was only restrictions of time that kept me from saying anything about it here then. Here's some of the text from that label:
"The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is a ...cross-breeding project with chickens that connects art and science... For his first cross-breeding Koen Vanmechelen chose the 'Mechelse Koekoek' (cuckoo of Mechelen), the pride of Flemish chicken breeding and a relative in name to the artist. The 'poulet de Bresse' (chicken of Bresse) is a first-rate French chicken. Their cross-breeding is the 'Mechelse de Bresse' that went to London, to the Lisson Gallery, to be cross-bred with the English 'Redcap.' This successful race was almost infertile. By cross-breeding with fresh blood it became fertile again...After many years of isolation you get to deal with phenomena such as the Redcap.
"In the meantime the 'Mechelse Redcap', uniting Belgian, French and English nationalities was crossbred with the American 'Jersey Giant' which is not surprisingly the biggest chicken on earth. Only in case a border is actually being crossed, the artist indeed shows the whole breeding process from the hatching of the eggs until the breaking out of the chicks. More cross breedings were made with the 'Dresdner Huhn,' the Dutch 'Uilebaard' and a Brasilean chicken which is a samba chicken. Vanmechelen: 'I am fascinated by the fact that people have bred such chickens. It says something about the origin and the existence of their national conscience. In those chickens one may find the characteristics of a nation.'
"All current chicken races originate from the first, primitive chicken, the 'Red Jungle Fowl,' that still lives near the Himalayas. In Nepal Koen Vanmechelen was able to film a Red Jungle Fowl family. In contrast with domesticated chickens the Red Jungle Fowl is monogamous. As the fowl still lives in the wild, monogamy may be even a stronger characteristic than the polygamous element. The super bastard of Cosmopolitan Chicken is no return to the primitive fowl, but a new start. 'What she will look like is not important,' says the artist.' She will get another sort of beauty. She will have all genes of all chickens in the world. It is an ideal and like ideals it will be full of deficiencies. This chicken is a living work of art that is ready for someing new. The artist's role is almost gone. Everything is on the move. It is a perpetuum mobile.'
"The project already has ten genrations - the latest being the Cuban Mechelse Cubalaya...."

Cases of glass eggs from Cosmopolitan Chicken Project in 2009
This year we were delighted to find that Koen Vanmechelen had additional work in Venice, this time in conjunction with Glasstress. First, one of his glass eggs with chicken legs is at the Palazzo Franchetti.

A significant part of his exhibition, titled nato a venezia [born in Venice]  is in a nearby palace of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, where the Venetian Pantheon, a display of marble busts representing distinguished men who were born or lived for a long time in Venice, is on display.  Positioned among them is Vanmechelen's portrait of the 'Mechelse Fayoumi,' the 15th generation of his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, a result of the mating of no. 14, the' Mechelse Silky' and the Egyptian 'Fayoumi.'

In shelves behind the Pantheon are taxidermied representatives of the previous 14 generations of the project.

Upstairs in a 'breeding room' are inclubators with eggs resulting from the 15th breeding waiting to hatch. When we asked, we learned that the chicks were due in a couple of days, would remain in the palace for about a day and then be transferred to the gallery on Murano, since the palace wouldn't permit the keeping of live animals.
Also upstairs were several laptops and a researcher working on Vanmechelen's Open Diversity Project, which involves several areas of research on diversity. One was about symmetry and asked the visitor to be photograped. I tried it, but my head was tilted in the photograph so that it would not produce any sensible results in a symmetry project. I tried answering the questionnaire, but missed some questions and couldn't get back to it to complete participation. My personal experience with that combination of art and science was that neither was working properly in that particular context.
Another part had to do with flatworm populations and I wandered away from it.
But we remained fascinated by the chickens and on Murano we made a point of visiting them. We saw the chicks that had hatched earlier

Generation 15

and visited the parents, one of which kept crowing insistently. I gather he was the Egyptian Fayoumi.

I am charmed by the idea of breeding all the chickens of the world together to make one breed, a 'one world' chicken. I see it as a metaphoric peace initiative, although I can imagine other far more negative interpretations. Other aspects of working with chickens  discussed in Washington Post article about Vanmechelen's exhibition there in November 2009 - for example the idea of breaking out of a shell to find oneself in a cage, in a gallery - also interest me, but it's the cosmopolitan chicken that caught and engages my imagination.

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