Animal breeding has always been a highly aestheticized field; we select and perpetuate certain genetic traits based on how well they fit the “look” of a species. The results often says more about civilization, and man’s relationship with the wild, than it does about the natural order. Koen Vanmechelen’s art, currently up in a new show “Leaving Paradise” at Connersmith Gallery in D.C., has examined this relationship for years now, producing a prolific body of art and scientific research all things chicken related.
Koen would be the first to say that it’s not about the chicken at all. Chicken portraits, taxidermy chickens, a chicken eye video loop, and indeed, a live chicken installation piece may be enough to convince you that the artist has a peculiar fowl obsession, but this work is all but a cog in an ultimately larger view, for Vanmechelen the chicken represents humanity in general. He has been steadily working for some time on a “Cosmopolitan Chicken Project” in which he has been breeding birds from different global regions to counteract their domestic traits. Rumor has it he’s produced a chicken that can fly, this being the ultimate symbolic liberation for the flightless bird, an inherent contradiction and testament to the artificiality normally imposed on domestic breeds. His fixation on biodiversity is not in the traditional “heirloom” sense, rather than breed chickens back to their ancestral origins, his breeding perpetuates their evolution, giving the chicken a chance to forage a new identity.
Though scientific methods are employed in his artistic pursuits, Vanmechelen remains at a distance from the scientific world, and firmly rooted in art practice. The chicken has become a medium for him to disseminate his views on globalization, humanity, identity and personal agency, his extensive record of the process feels more relevant to certain Earth Artist practices of the 1970’s where artists would produce something outdoors, usually ephemeral and hard for any other humans to view, rendering the related documenting photos and artifacts the “art” for purposes of gallery shows and sales. This focus on the work, a process, and not the product, a commodity, feels faintly retro in its adherence to proto post-modernist rejection of the consumer orientation of the art world. The objects produced are beautiful, disturbing, iconoclastic and creative, but the ideas behind the work he does is where the real art happens.
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-Contributed by Kathryn McKinney