By KURT MCVEY, SEPT. 2016
For the last twenty years, Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen has devoted much of his life and practice to the highly ambitious Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, which facilitates the crossbreeding of chickens from around the world as a metaphor for global diversity. On September 22nd, Vanmechelen will unveil ENERGY/MASS, a multidisciplinary exhibition featuring live chickens as well as 2D and 3D artworks at Wasserman Projects, an enduringly indefinable art space located in Detroit’s historic Eastern Market.
“Ambitious is maybe not the right word,” says the unassumingly driven Vanmechelen, pausing for a moment across from the eponymous curator, art patron, philanthropist, and Detroit native, Gary Wasserman on a late summer afternoon at the Core Club in New York City. “I think it’s about desire, which is even better.”
“Koen’s show is more like a museum show because galleries don’t have chickens,” adds the perennially bow-tied Wasserman, who justifiably continues to be tickled by the playful dichotomy between the ostensibly plebian nature of the chicken as animal and its stark contrast, not only with the frequently white-gloved nature of the art world, but also the complex and far reaching humanist implications inherent in the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP). “Considering the multi-disciplinary scope of this thing, it’s very difficult to do an elevator speech.”
“That’s the beauty,” says Vanmechelen. “It’s high culture and high tech, while telling the human story.
To be fair, in September 2015, conceptual artist Bill Beckley had a live rooster present in his major solo retrospective and inaugural exhibition at Albertz Benda in Chelsea called “The Accidental Poet.” Beckley’s piece, Rooster, Bed, Lying, was a recreation of his 1971 installation of the same name. Beckley’s decade spanning, multi-media exhibition benefitted greatly from the spatial and contextual fluidity of Albertz Benda; a winding, adaptable space that often straddles the line between gallery and museum, much like Wasserman Projects, if it had 9,000 square feet of Detroit real estate to play with.
“Our space is more of a kunsthalle or concert hall with a gallery function,” says Wasserman. “We don’t turn shows every six weeks. We do it much more like a museum, though I remain hesitant to define the space.”
Bill Beckley’s valiant rooster aside, Vanmechelen’s show will most likely stand as the chicken related art show to end all chicken related art shows, but such a description falls hopelessly short of illustrating the exhibition’s overall grandeur. ENERGY/MASS, which fully incorporates the CCP, promises to feature two decades worth of photography, video, sculpture, installation and what the artist is calling living art initiatives.
“Koen’s show and project are so central to our mission, especially as an intermediary space,” says Wasserman. “Even though Koen makes artwork from the chickens, the chickens are the artwork.”
“I’m a medium as well; an artistic, biological, philosophical, and sociological intermediary,” says Vanmechelen of his collaborative interplay with, not only the laws of nature, but Wasserman himself, who cannot easily be divorced from the “flexible and constantly evolving” space that bears his name. “The artist is between things. This is the magic.”
Vanmechelen crossbred his first chickens on the border of Belgium and France twenty years ago. He eventually took the results to England, sparking a global chain of artistic and scientific discoveries, which continue to run parallel to an increasingly complex strain of chicken DNA. “The whole process has and will continue to be natural, spontaneous, and organic, which is why I can call it an art project,” says Vanmechelen. “Otherwise, it’s just science. I prefer to follow the art.”
The CCP has since traveled to America, Germany, the Netherlands, Mexico, Thailand, Brazil, Turkey, Cuba, Indonesia, Italy, Russia, China, Egypt, Senegal, Slovenia and Austria, leading to the 19th Generation Mechelse Cemani chicken, which will in turn be bred with the American Wyandotte chicken—named for a Native American tribe historically prevalent in the lower Great Lakes—producing the 20th generation Mechelse Wyandotte or CCP20. This new, fully-grown chicken, which Koen compares to “a beautiful, colorful, living painting-never the same, never a copy,” now holds aspects of the DNA of 20 international breeds and boasts an unprecedented, enormously enriched matrix of genetic content (over 13 million DNA strains versus the 4-5 million in a normal chicken). It will then be exhibited in a specially constructed installation at Wasserman Projects alongside its simpler, yet highly esteemed feathered forbearers.
Though up to this point, Vanmechelen and his comrades have never used the Cosmopolitan Chicken for food (“We won’t eat from that story”), they will however begin to produce an edible, artisanal variety when they breed the Mechelse Wyandotte (CCP20) with the good old, industrial, plain Jane, American staple, the Isa Brown, which they hope to unveil in the Spring of 2017. This will be the “Planetary Community Chicken” effectively crossbreeding high art with urban agriculture. “Every year we’ll have a new model,” claims Wasserman. “Just like cars! How Detroit is that?”
This might be a good a time as ever to state that Vanmechelen’s chickens get it on the old fashioned way. “ I guess you could say it’s natural genetic engineering,” says Vanmechelen with an innocent chuckle.
“Yes, but maybe it’s better to say, selective breeding,” Wasserman politely offers after leaning in vigilantly, only to recline back in his seat with an ever so impish PR wink.
What’s fascinatingly absurd more than absurdly fascinating, is how after being spread across the globe by humans over the course of the last seven thousand years, the chicken has become an uncanny reflection of the country it inhabits. “The chicken is not only a biological animal, but also a cultural and aesthetic animal,” says Vanmechelen. “The conversation must be about bio and cultural diversity, because if you make a chicken that reflects the culture of a population, that’s pure culture.”
Apparently, even nationalism tastes like chicken. For instance, France’s Poulet de Bresse has a red comb, a white body, and blue feet, ala the French flag. British food writer and historian Alan Davidson once called the bird “the aristocrat of modern table poultry.” The Chinese chicken, The Silkie, has super fluffy plumage that in texture especially, mimics; you guessed it, silk, historically a major resource in the country. The English Redcap (UK) is currently the most inbred (to the point of near extinction), underperforming and entirely useless chicken on the planet, a most hilarious mirror to the potentially catastrophic effects of the current xenophobic Brexit debacle and its obvious evolutionarily consequences, not least of all genetic erosion. For the record, America boasts the Jersey Giant, which says it all.
“It’s not only about physics, it's also about brains,” says Vanmechelen. “It’s about desire-something you don’t know yet. In an industry of calculation, you know the parameters; here, it’s about life.”
Vanmechelen’s camp includes the Open University of Diversity (OpUnDi), which brings together scientists, experts, artists, engineers and thinkers from around the world to focus on biological and cultural diversity and to hopefully “break the frame” as the artist puts it. This space and several foundations are accommodated by his new, state of the art studio, “bio-cultural temple,” and breeding station, all built in an old zoo in the Belgian city of Genk named, La Biomista, which could be broken down as, La (French) Bio (Greek) Mista (Italian) and literally means “mixed life.”
It’s not just about discovering the best genetic traits and pairing them; good breeding is about finding value in the highly unique emotional intelligence inherent in every individual organism within a species. Vanmechelen continually emphasizes the importance of discussing the CCP through the lens of Epigenetics, which places equal, if not more value in external and often intangible factors like instinctual environmental sensitivity, not just the doctored alteration of genetic material. It’s this similar emotional acuity, the true currency and overall magic ingrained in the artist that Vanmechelen searches for in his chickens.
Lately Koen has been drawn towards more extreme environments, and other “forgotten places,” most recently the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, where chickens brave temperatures that often drop to 40 degrees below Fahrenheit in winter. The artist was also recently in Zimbabwe, where chickens weather the intense heat and extended dry periods.
“Where chickens are under pressure, people are under pressure,” notes Vanmechelen, who recently staged an exhibit in the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, in Harare, in early August in conjunction with the Future of Hope Foundation, which helped sew the seeds for the PCC. “It’s not about creating a ‘super chicken.’ To build up a strong genetic chicken, it has to be built from the good, the bad, and everything in-between, like society.”
Every day the world has 65 billion live chickens clucking at once and 60 million tons of eggs. 80% of all developing countries live on the product of chickens. “Scientists are all saying it’s the biggest protein bomb there is,” says Vanmechelen. “90% of all our medication is based on the chicken egg-vaccines, immunotherapy, etc. Society without the chicken and its eggs, it can’t exist.”
Forget about society for a moment, what about life itself? Was the big bang not the first cosmological omelette? In the Detroit show, Vanmechelen seeks to answer this age-old question of “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” Koen depicts his hypothesis visually in a neon diptych in the exhibition, also called “ENERGY/MASS.” Here he proposes that the answer is neither: all life begins with energy and ends in mass. But neither can also mean both, as proposed in Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence. The universe expanded from a high density and high temperature state, bottled up in some supercharged ultra subatomic anti-matter particle, ready to explode forth at the moment of singularity and start cooling and clucking across the vast universe.
If you’re thinking that the CCP, which has the power to enrich communities across the globe, both artistically and nutritionally, while providing an emotional and scientific model for the clear evolutionary benefits of diversity, inclusion, and empathy, is the first art show in a while to subtly and effortlessly court the Nobel Peace Prize, you’re not alone. This might be one of the most important art initiatives in the history of the planet. The truth is, most art is simply a reflection of an individual thought or an exploration of a singular ego or as Koen so brilliantly puts it, “Art is a trash bin of your own frustrations.”
In 2016, as we see people close off and compartmentalize themselves, and this means artistically as well, it’s important to discover new methods and metaphors to help dissolve the negative cultural architecture built around our real and presumed differences. The natural, instinctual drive that pushes us as a species inherently compels us to diversify. Closing our minds, hearts and our borders is a perversion of the laws of nature.
“The opposite of love is not hate, but fear,” says Vanmechelen. “I see it in nature. Love is a translation of procreation. And fear is a natural thing. If you fear something, then you are blocked and to give is very difficult. This is what we are facing. It’s a difficult story.” WM