February 1, 2015 - Museum De Domijnen - Koen Vanmechelen
February 1, 2015

Koen Vanmechelen

Photo: Bert Janssen.

Koen Vanmechelen
This Is Not a Chicken

18 January–7 June 2015 

De Domijnen 
Museum Het Domein
Kapittelstraat 6
6131 ER Sittard
The Netherlands


Occasionally the museum presents exhibitions that focus on surprising turns within the work of artists who have already established reputations. The conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen (b. 1965, Sint-Truiden, Belgium) achieved international fame with his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. In 1999 he began crossbreeding chicken breeds from around the world to create a cosmopolitan chicken. Through the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, Vanmechelen examines phenomena such as nationalism, multiculturalism, biocultural diversity, identity, fertility, and immunity. In the context of this groundbreaking project, the artist has collaborated with researchers in a number of disciplines for over a decade. However much Vanmechelen is associated with this one species of poultry, he is more concerned with the ancient symbiotic relationship between humans and chickens. The chicken functions as a sentinel species: if the chicken is not doing well, it is an indication that all is not well with humankind.

The recent outbreak of bird flu at a number of Dutch poultry farms further underscores the importance of the project. The mass production of purebred chickens in bio-industry increases pathogens. Chickens are selectively bred to promote specific properties such as meat and egg production. The downside is that other genes and characteristics that seem to offer fewer advantages in an artificial environment, such as resistance, disappear in the process. This makes domesticated chickens extremely susceptible to bird flu viruses. With his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, Koen Vanmechelen highlights the importance of diversity in a world that is developing from being monocultural to multicultural. In 1999 he first crossed a Flemish chicken, the Mechelse Koekoek, with a French species: the Poulet de Bresse. The artist dubbed the result “the Mechelse Bresse.” His current cosmopolitan chicken has, among others, Chinese, American, Russian, Cuban, and Senegalese heritages. Vanmechelen’s creation lives considerably longer than its monocultural peers and, furthermore, is more fertile and resistant. Over the years, the scientific aspect of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project received increasingly more attention. Meanwhile, some researchers see the project as a pilot “to identify and functionally characterize the chicken’s lost virus-resistant genes.”

For his exhibition, Vanmechelen will transform the museum into a giant artistic and scientific laboratory. The artist will debut his MECC (Mushroom, Egg, Chicken, Camelids) project: a notable step within his work, in which scientific research is focused on immunity and resistance. Cosmopolitan chickens, camelids, mushrooms, and people are the most important subjects of this research. This artistic-scientific project will go to places where scientific research can or may not. Dromedary antibodies promise to be a powerful weapon against viruses, but their merits cannot be delivered to humans yet. In studying the chickens, the focus will be on the Mx gene, which provides natural protection against various viruses, including bird flu. The Mx gene of monocultural chickens, however, barely demonstrates any antiviral activity. This might be linked to the limited genetic diversity of various artificial chicken breeds. The hypothesis is that the greatly increased genetic diversity of the cosmopolitan chicken can reinforce the antiviral activity of the Mx gene. This hypothesis will be studied in a innovative art/research project in which researchers in molecular virology from Ghent University and Flanders Institute for Biotechnology will collaborate with the artist.

The exhibition will have the character of a comprehensive work of art where the focus is not on individual art objects, but the way the various pieces work together. A cycle will be created in the museum reminiscent of Full Farm, an iconic 1970s ecological art project by the American couple Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison. The large hall and courtyard of the museum will house an actual dromedary. This animal’s manure will—after being pasteurized—serve as raw material for a mushroom farm in the museum. The mushrooms, in turn, will be part of the diet of the 18th and most recent generation of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project: the Mechelse Sulmtaler. The eggs that these chickens produce will also play a role in the exhibition. In a laboratory in the museum, researchers will continually test and evaluate the results of this half-scientific half-artistic study for the duration of the exhibition. 

Curator Roel Arkesteijn has organized a tour on the free Sunday, March 1, at 3pm. On Sunday March 15, at 3pm, Koen Vanmechelen will give a lecture on his work at the museum. Partly inspired by the exhibition, the museum will contribute for the second time to the international Fête de la Nature on May 23. 

Special thanks go to the CICI-program of Flanders District of Creativity and the Agency for Innovation through Science and Technology (Agentschap voor Innovatie door Wetenschap en Technologie – IWT). 

Further information and visuals can be found in the press room, in the museum’s homepage: www.dedomijnen.nl or www.hetdomein.nl.

For other questions, you can contact:
Karin Adams, press officer: T +31 46 4513460 / karin.adams [​at​] dedomijnen.nl 
Roel Arkesteijn, exhibition curator: T +31 46 4513460 / roel.arkesteijn [​at​] dedomijnen.nl

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