Rebellion in the Henhouse

Thoughts on Koen Vanmechelen’s artistic and culture-theoretical context
by Peter Noever

For the duration of Guangzhou’s 4th Triennial, the exceptional Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen has transformed the distinguished museum in Guangzhou into a vital center of chicken breeding at which his 15th generation of “Cosmopolitan Chickens” is currently mating before the eyes of the art public. By way of generating a contrast to the usual purebred, nationally specific chicken breeds, Vanmechelen intentionally crosses hens and roosters of differing origins and nationalities. The chicks of the generations that follow are thus “bastards” in a post-colonial and creative sense.

“I just killed a pig and a goat!” Facebook inventor Marc Zuckerberg posted on his Facebook wall recently, elaborating his media coup with the following lapidary declaration: from now on, Zuckerberg continued “the only meat I’m eating is from animals I’ve killed myself.”

It was quite happily and in one and the same house that Carsten Höller and Rosemarie Trockel had human beings and pigs spend 100 days cohabiting during documenta X in Kassel.

It was via an emergency court injunction, on the other hand, that an artist once tried to block her colleague’s exhibition of a (stuffed) giraffe. The offending project was conceptual artist Peter Friedl’s Zoo Story at documenta XII, for which Friedl had transported the giraffe in question from the Palestinian West Bank to the seemingly peaceful city of Kassel.

At this year’s Art Basel fair, David Zink Yi presented the lifeless body of a giant squid (architeuthis) placed in a pitch-black puddle: a fleshy manifestation of human guilt washed up from the deepest depths of the conscience, one might surmise.

For her part, Swiss artist Beatrice Stähli mounted dead German shepherds and arranged them in a three-part installation entitled Die Wiener Sängerknaben [Vienna Boys’ Choir] in 1995.

And finally, a bronze statue of Hachiko—a famous dog of the Akita Inu breed which died in 1923—stands as a monument to unwavering loyalty and is one of Tokyo’s most popular rendezvous spots for lovers (and now features in a movie by Lasse Halström with Richard Gere: Hachiko – a dog’s story).

All of these artists view themselves as advocates, defenders, comrades, opponents or slaughterers, and are at any rate conscious of their power and powerlessness vis-à-vis these creatures which are different from—yet related to—themselves. In this, the artists stand metaphorically for the role of the human being—situated between animal and creator, victim and perpetrator. Simply put, these artists are dealing with issues of human existence. 

In his presentation, Koen Vanmechelen focuses on the mystical red junglefowl, which is assumed to be the mother-hen of all domesticated chickens. Thousands of eggs have been laid and then stamped with initials respectively designating the fifteen already-born generations of Cosmopolitan Chicken or “mechelse chicken,” with every single one representing a certain generation.

The artist is using his project as a way to explore issues of subjective and global identity that have arisen as a consequence of genetic diversity, matters which naturally apply less to chickens than to human beings—and such matters are, in turn, matters of art.

Koen Vanmechelen brings the issue of breeding closer to a broad human consciousness. He does not hand it over to competent experts such as geneticists, chicken breeders or market researchers, but rather claims for the topic of the chicken an approach that is artistic, intuitive and perceptive. By transferring chicken breeding to the context of art and cultural theory, Vanmechelen opens the problem to sociopolitical and philosophical questions. As absurd and funny, ironic and zany as his project may seem to be, the strategy behind it is just as unique and consistent. And this strategy makes all the clearer the determined tendency towards rebellion against traditional classifications shared by more and more artists who oscillate between art and architecture or between art and science. In this sense, the rebellion here spreads beyond the walls of the henhouse and takes aim at the traditional definition of art itself, which such transgressions simultaneously question and expand.

Vienna, 8 August 2011