“I’m liberated. Finally, art can be engaged again.” Koen Vanmechelen is standing in his studio in Hasselt, otherwise known as “The Open University of Diversity”, where Cosmopolitan Stranger, part of the Hotel de Inmigrantes project, is reaching its final stages.
Earlier in the summer, Vanmechelen brought together 42 artists from all over the world in his studio to work and live together like immigrants. They had to register as temporary residents, take care of the material needed for their works and live together within the confined space, jammed with beds, that was open for everyone around the clock.
“Artists are genuine migrants, travellers settling everywhere,” says Vanmechelen, one of Flanders’ most internationally recognised conceptual artists. “When they arrive, people welcome them and assign them a space to exhibit their work. Being creative within your surroundings produces a positive image, and that is a first step towards integration. This positive force of meeting points and cross breeding has always fascinated me, also in my work around the Cosmopolitan Chicken.”
Vanmechelen’s Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, in which he crossbreeds chickens from across the world as a metaphor for global diversity, has spawned a variety of different exhibitions in the US, China and across Europe, including the 54th Venice Biennale and this year’s dOCUMENTA.
Cosmopolitan Stranger, a parallel event of Genk’s Manifesta 9, is only the first step in the Hotel de Inmigrantes project, curated by Vanmechelen and Tomasz Wendland, the director of the Poland Biennale. The pair “worked out the idea to form a group of artists who engage in a debate and really dare to confront each other in a series of meetings at various locations around the world”, Vanmechelen explains. “Our dream is to end that quest for identity in Buenos Aires, where the original Hotel de Inmigrantes once hosted migrants from all over the world who arrived in South America.”
Now that the artists have travelled on, their temporary residence in Hasselt is home to their work. Vanmechelen’s studio is a cross between a cage and an incubator. A wire fence that simulates being electrically charged whenever the door opens shields the exhibition and work spaces, forcing visitors to follow a predetermined path.
The metal grids attached to the inside of the windows give a sense of entrapment, while you walk around a giant column-like cage with chickens. Elsewhere in the studio, surgery lights point towards an empty bed. Television screens, documents and other works hint at reflections on diversity, artistic freedom and practical restrictions. At one point, researchers from the University of Hasselt came to Vanmechelen’s studio to do a DNA test. “We wanted to see where those 42 artists came from and how diverse they really are,” says Vanmechelen. “Before we actually performed the tests, we had a lively discussion. Some artists absolutely wanted to do the tests, while others were strongly opposed. We had people from all sorts of backgrounds and with different personalities, but, in the end, art can overcome a lot of differences.”
With Cosmopolitan Chicken and the related works (cross-breeding in vitro or using llamas, etc), Vanmechelen has always come back to chickens as a metaphor for human nature and cultural diversity. “The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project can go as far as conception and incubation, all the way to the level of DNA. Hotel de Inmigrantes wouldn’t want to go that far... It focuses more on cultural diversity. But people should understand that, as domesticated animals, chickens are heavily linked to countries and form an extension of human thought processes.”
He gives France’s Bresse breed as a example. “For poultry farmers, the Bresse poses no problems. But as an artist, I see an animal that is forced to have a red head, a white body and blue legs [the national colours of France] without any possibility of evolution. There’s no freedom there, only imposed limitations.”
But Hotel de Inmigrantes, he says, “doesn’t actually deal with nationalism. It mainly focuses on breeching one’s personal framework. All great things happen at meeting points.”
Hotel de Inmigrantes, like the Cosmopolitan Chicken, transfers practices closely related to economic realities – producing consumer goods and migrating in order to better your life – to an artistic environment.
“Art has a crucial role to play in society,” stresses the Limburg-born artist. “With yesterday’s and today’s tools, art speaks out about tomorrow. Art should transcend the individual and the actual in order to be universal. When you’re a spectator of the creative processes that are happening before your eyes, you are also making art.”
Vanmechelen’s work is part science, but, he insists, “I’m not a politician, scientist or activist. I’m an artist. That is clear. I strive for a balance between the jungle and the village, between nature and culture. I want to find a point where I can merge them because I believe that what happens there matters.”
The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is part of dOCUMENTA 13, the fiveyearly visual arts festival in Kassel, which is happening right now. The curatorial statement says that it is a festival “dedicated to artistic research and forms of imagination that explore commitment”, among other fields of interest.
“People realise that there’s a need to couple art and society,” continues Vanmechelen. “But art shouldn’t be a translation of society; it should have a visionary force, aimed towards our future. Art can produce an enormous energy, which can be destructive but also offers hope. Art can inspire all branches of society to create a new world. It can inseminate a new world.”
Until 31 August
Hotel de Inmigrantes:
Open University of Diversity, Armand Hertzstraat 35, Hasselt