artist / participant
For his latest show, ‘Cosmopolitan Chicken Project - Virtual Fighters’, Koen Vanmechelen has come up with an absolutely new form of expression. But even though he ventures into an entirely different world, he has clearly stuck to the basic principles of his ongoing long-term Cosmopolitan Chicken Project.
Our readers will probably not need reminding that this Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is the large-scale chicken breeding project that Koen Vanmechelen has been working on since 2000. It entails the systematic crossing of ‘pure’ chicken breeds, many of which symbolise a nationality, according to a programme designed to accumulates the genetic material of all the crossbred animals. In 2000, the artist crossed the Belgian Mechelse Koekoek (B) with the French Poulet de Bresse. The young, which he dubbed ‘Mechelse Bresse’, were then crossed with the English Redcap (GB); the ‘Mechelse Redcap’ was crossed with the Jersey Giant (USA); the ‘Mechelse Giant’ was crossed with the Dresdner Huhn (D); the ‘Mechelse Dresdner’ was crossed with the Owlbeard (NL); the ‘Mechelse Owlbeard’ was crossed with the Louisiana (Mexico); and, most recently, the ‘Mechelse Louisiana’ was crossed with the Thai Fighter.
The exhibition ‘Koen Vanmechelen - Cosmopolitan Chicken Project - Virtual Fighters’ is built up around two most extraordinary objects: the ‘Mechelse Fighter I’ (on the wall) and the ‘Mechelse Fighter II’ (on the table). To realise these sculptures, the artist made use of the most advanced medical and scientific technologies. First, Vanmechelen had a complete three-dimensional scan made of two dead chickens: one a Mechelse Louisiana and the other a Thai Fighter. For the sculpture ‘Mechelse Fighter I’, the artist used computer graphics software to add a part of the scan of the Mechelse Louisiana (head and neck) to that of Thai Fighter, thus creating a digital representation of a virtual two-headed bird. The Lambda prints ‘Mechelse Fighter I’ illustrate this virtual creature. For the sculpture ‘Mechelse Fighter II’, the artist again ‘crossed’ digital material to let the skeleton of the Thai Fighter emerge from the body of the virtual bird. This yielded a second virtual creature, two-headed and redoubled, the ‘Mechelse Fighter II’. The three Lambda prints ‘Mechelse Fighter II’ are the digital visualisation of this ‘Mechelse Fighter II’.
To turn these two virtual forms into the two magnificent tangible objects in the exhibition, the two digital files that Koen Vanmechelen had produced by ‘playing around’ with the scan information were used as input for a computer-aided 3D modelling process generally known as ‘rapid prototyping’. Vanmechelen used the technique of Selective Laser Sintering, SLS for short, in which a laser beam hardens a polyamide powder into an object. Next, the objects were electroplated with brass and finally, they were finished with a thin layer of 23-carat gold. The gold, which elevates the objects to an almost sacred status, reminds the artist mostly of death masks.
In brief, the dead animals have given birth to (images of) new, virtual animals, through the intervention of the artist. Here, the idea of the Cosmopolitan Chicken was realised in non-living material, before the real cross between a Mechelse Louisiana and a Thai Fighter has taken place.
Furthermore, the show includes a projection, various scans, an activated SLI file, and a large synthetic work. The large projection, ‘Mechelse Fighter II (Section View)’(8’30”, in loop), shows the complete three-dimensional structure of the Mechelse Fighter II. Then come 8 light boxes with two-dimensional sections of the virtual object Mechelse Fighter II, while the plasma screen alongside it shows the short film ‘Mechelse Fighter II (System Layer Interface File)’ (2’, in loop). This is an animated and dynamic survey of the layers that make up the Mechelse Fighter II object. The moving images visualise the structure of the SLS object. Finally, on the central wall, across from the large projection, hangs the monumental panel ‘Cosmopolitan Chicken Project - Virtual Fighters’. On the left, the panel shows what the artist has dubbed the ‘incubator’, being the bath in which stereo-lithographic objects are formed, and on the right, an image of the virtual object Mechelse Fighter I. The neon light, a stand-in for both the laser beam and the incubator lamp, connects the two worlds, the virtual and the real.
B. For some obscure reason, the first pictures Koen Vanmechelen showed me of these virtual Mechelse Fighters immediately brought to mind the world-famous gold saltcellar in the collection of the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, which Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) made around 1540 in Fontainebleau for the French King François I, and which is generally considered a high point in the history of Western sculpture. Why would I associate these pictures with this Renaissance masterpiece?
The first thing the saltcellar in question and the virtual Mechelse Fighters I & II have in common is their precious metal finish. Furthermore, they present a similar degree of fine detail in representing their ‘model’, and there is a resemblance in the structure of their ‘subject matter’: both the saltcellar and the virtual Mechelse Fighters unite two antagonistic elements: a male Neptune and a female nymph in Cellini’s creation, and a Mechelse Louisiana and a Thai Fighter in Vanmechelen’s.
But there’s more to it. Koen Vanmechelen – and this may sound strange at first – is not so much interested in the chicken as in the act of crossing itself. In other words, the underlying concept of a cross between two antithetical elements, which are forced into a synthesis: that is the ‘bottom line’ of Koen Vanmechelen’s art.
C. For about a decade now, Koen Vanmechelen has been using the chicken to give symbolic form to the action of crossbreeding as a principle of procreation and creation. The successive crossings of national chicken breeds are the most explicit and probably the most evident examples of crossbreeding in the artist’s oeuvre. But many other forms can be found and identified: interdisciplinary artistic cross-fertilisation, for instance, or the fusion of artistic with scientific principles, or the crossing between artistic and social worlds. In his person, Koen Vanmechelen unites all these dimensions. In these post-post-modern times, we may therefore rightfully call Koen Vanmechelen a new Renaissance man, a homo universalis. He is an artist whose tremendous drive and inspiration urges him to explore other disciplines. He has mastered a host of other arts besides the ‘fine’ arts. In these respects, he is a lot like the great masters of the Renaissance, whose interest in their world was as broad as possible. With this outlook, they realised one inventio or ‘invention’ after the other, their only measure being man himself. A similar broad interest, tendency to mix disciplines, and humanist attitude, a comparable positive, development-minded action, and an analogous free-thinking spirit are characteristic of Koen Vanmechelen.
Jo Coucke 19 March 2005
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