Koen Vanmechelen's chicken art is something to squawk about

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sometimes when the Belgian conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen is being philosophical, he ponders a profound question of our time:

"Did the chicken come to me, or did I come to the chicken?"

What led him to dedicate his life to the chicken, to breeding it and studying it, traveling the world for it? Was it the egg-as-prison metaphor that Vanmechelen found compelling -- the image of the domesticated chick struggling to free itself only to be born into a cage? Is it the chicken's humanlike traits, such as walking on two feet and waking with the sun, that create a soulful bond between man and poultry?

What is the meaning of life?

Those questions and more will be examined in Vanmechelen's "Cosmopolitan Chicken Project," a multimedia exhibit opening Saturday evening at the Conner Contemporary Art gallery, featuring photographs, video, taxidermy and livestock and smelling faintly of chicken poop.

In the center of the Northeast Washington gallery, the pièce de résistance -- a massive chicken coop with three feathered inhabitants who huddle together and occasionally squawk. "It's okay," Vanmechelen says to one chicken in the soothing voice of a man who is used to working with taloned animals.

He is inside the cage; he is holding the chicken. "The chicken likes it," Vanmechelen assures a visitor who stopped by earlier this week to witness the installation. "Go ahead, you can pet."

Its eyes are beady but its feathers are surprisingly soft and slick.

We humans apparently project a lot onto our chickens. We have been breeding them for thousands of years. Over centuries, each country has developed what it perceives to be the perfect chicken, based on everything from geographical conditions to national pride. In France, the poulet de Bresse has a red crown, white feathers and blue legs -- the patriotic colors of the French flag. In Belgium the Mechelse koekoek has sturdy legs like a Belgian horse, good for the country's clay terrain. Americans breed their chickens big, like they breed everything else big -- sneering Jersey Giants with rugged feathers.

Chickens on the move

The pridefulness surrounding chickens concerned Vanmechelen, 44, who raised chickens as a small child. "By transferring these thoughts to living objects, we put a frame around them," he says over dinner at his hotel the night before installation. We decide what a perfect chicken looks like, and we disregard the ones who do not fit the mold. We judge the chicken. This rigid view of chicken-ness "is against the movement of evolution. All we know is that things must change. That is life."

He got an idea. The idea was to take the Belgian chicken and mate it with the French chicken, creating a breed he christened the Mechelse Bresse. Then to take that offspring and breed it with an English chicken. Then to take that offspring and mate it with an American chicken. Nine years after his first experiment, Vanmechelen has 13 generations of crossbred chickens, each generation getting closer to the primal, unblemished wild chicken, which still roams the foothills of the Himalayas.

The chicken is the art.

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