"Inception: The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project" presented recent work resulting from Koen Vanmechelen's ongoing artistic investigation (begun in 1999) into nationhood, identity and genetic manipulation. Consisting of sculptures, photographs, videos and mixed-medium works, the exhibition—which inaugurated Wasserman Projects—documented a crossbreeding venture in which the Belgian artist mates chickens from different countries to produce an increasingly hybrid bird. Today, that animal comprises more than 17 specific varieties. The works are designed to represent Vanmechelen's overall endeavor, which involves a poultry farm and collaborations with scientists and institutions.
Visitors first encountered a "breeding room" containing a cage with 3-inch-long glass eggs under a red heat lamp, a video showing the magnification of a rooster's sperm, and a cluster of glass eggs, ranging from 6 to 16 inches in length, suspended from the ceiling. Expanding networks of technology, the installation suggested, are transforming both the fowl and its environment, increasingly intertwining the manmade and the natural.
In the center room, two walls were devoted to gestural drawings representing chickens or eggs. These were also hybrids of sorts, made from yolks, grains and feathers, among other materials. Contrasting with a nearby vitrine containing a taxidermied chicken, its comb and legs replaced with glass prosthetics, the drawings conveyed an almost expressionist sense of life, growth and development.
Four large Lambda print diptychs appeared on another wall. They show pairs of birds' heads facing each other, a hybrid on the left and a "pure" breed on the right. Shot against white backgrounds, these oversize and extremely detailed photographic physiognomies suggest mug shots or identity-card images. They also reveal the power of genetic mutation: as we scan the different chickens, we see that the overall shape of their heads remains the same, but their combs and wattles undergo striking changes, growing and shrinking wildly as new DNA gets added to the mix.
In a back room, there was a small genealogical chart that included photographs of four different chickens, as well as another taxidermied bird from Vanmechelen's farm, a nature morte that confronted its exact copy made from plastic and feathers. A video documenting the construction of the winged simulacrum enhanced the analogy between art and genetic manipulation. The "real" chicken—now a readymade in a vitrine—confronts its artificial copy; and a record, in yet another medium, of the bird's re-creation is presented beside it. Vanmechelen's conceptualist project suggests that both art and science, in their attempts to manipulate life, have positive and negative effects. Although they develop themselves by replicating and destroying the past, both nonetheless create new forms as well.
Vanmechelen's work also raises compelling questions about the proper treatment of nonhuman species. Precisely because of the project's broad scope—the artist has, by now, bred more than 2,500 chickens—and its reliance on both living and dead animals, Vanmechelen's art retains a strong capacity to shock or provoke. At the same time, the issues he raises are important ones. As the artist implies, the expansion of science and technology has meant that distinctions between humans and animals are increasingly breaking down. Artists as well as scientists need to reflect more upon this situation.
PHOTO: Partial view of Koen Vanmechelen's Generic Chicken, 2010, taxidermied chicken, fake chicken, wood, video, prints on Plexiglas and mixed mediums, dimensions variable; at Wasserman Projects.