Like nothing you’ve ever seen: Labiomista opens in Genk


Is it a studio? A gallery? A zoo? It’s all of this and more, as visitors get a first glimpse at Flemish artist Koen Vanmechelen’s living arts centre

‘Mix of life’

Koen Vanmechelen is one of the most famous Belgian artists working today, but until now his work has not been easy to view here in Flanders. Originally from Sint-Truiden, the conceptual artist spends much of his time travelling the world, overseeing his many international projects and installations.

Now, decades of Vanmechelen’s wide-ranging work in areas such as chicken breeding, animal husbandry and genetic research, not to mention sculpture, glass-blowing and painting, have come together in a single, all-encompassing art campus called Labiomista. Built on the former Zwartberg mine site in Genk, Labiomista (“the mix of life”) combines the artist’s studio and gallery with a nature park and animal enclosures.

The venture is the result of a public-private partnership between the artist and the city of Genk, with additional funding from Limburg province and the government of Flanders. It represents the third and final redevelopment project of former mining sites in Genk, the others being C-Mine and Thor Park.

The Zwartberg coal mine closed in 1966 during a time of economic and social upheaval in Flanders. From 1970 to 1997, a private zoo with thousands of exotic, endangered and rescued animals operated on the grounds before succumbing to overcrowding and mismanagement. The site was acquired by the city of Genk in 1999.

Photo ©Tony Van Galen

The mayor of Genk, Wim Dries, emphasises the role Labiomista will play in boosting both the international visibility and economic viability of the city. “We’re supporting projects with international appeal, certainly, but we’re concerned first and foremost with strengthening the neighbourhood, and strengthening the city,” he says.

Both the mayor and the artist mention the decision not to include any food or drink within Labiomista, in order to motivate visitors to seek out establishments in the neighbourhood. At the moment, restaurant options are limited in an area that’s largely a mix of residential and industrial use. The Hoge Kempen National Park is also nearby.

Nomad Land, a picnic area and event space next to a community garden, provides another point of contact between Labiomista and the neighbourhood. (Picnic baskets can be ordered from the city’s tourism website.) The surrounding community has taken ownership of the space, with plans to organise events and develop it into a meeting place.

This building is a place for humans and animals together. Who is the predator and who is the prey?

- Koen Vanmechelen

“To sit together with the people who live here around the site and to be able to share your intellectual and physical hunger with the city, I think that’s an artwork in and of itself,” says Vanmechelen. “I think that it’s a new approach to being able and willing to live together in the future.”

Visitors enter through The Ark, a geometric building designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta and clad in black bricks that refer to the colour of coal. Standing on the roof is a statue of a man with an egg for a head and horns growing from his body. Between the street and the park’s boundary is a metal sculpture consisting of a Vanmechelen quote: “Global only exists through the generosity of the local.”

The hybrid creature-man, the egg and the quote all serve as preview of what’s to come: the artist’s preoccupation with the chicken, his love of combining and crossing species, his concerns about the future of humanity, and his interest in linking local and global issues.

Photo ©Kris Vervaeke

Inside the park, the sole remnant of the site’s mining past – the mine director’s residence – has been fully restored. The building, christened Villa OpUnDi, now houses several artworks as well as a library dedicated to the Open University of Diversity, an umbrella organisation that encompasses the artist’s various scientific and social projects. Here, visitors can learn about these projects and about the history of the site.

Beyond the villa, an imposing, rectangular building – The Battery – also designed by Mario Botta, serves as Vanmechelen’s private studio. It has a huge glass conservatory at one end and a 20-meter-tall metal cage rising from its centre.

The glass part contains species of fruit-eating birds from every continent, while the cage houses a breeding pair of endangered Steller’s sea eagles from the Moscow Zoo. For Vanmechelen, the bird enclosures represent the duality of human and animal nature: “This building is a place for humans and animals together. What is your space, what is my space, who is the predator and who is the prey?”

Art for art’s sake, art as we know it, can no longer survive

The Battery sits above the ground on concrete pillars, and underneath is a permanent outdoor exhibition space for several of Vanmechelen’s works. (The studio itself is not open to the public.) The artist’s best-known work, the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, is on display here in the form of several shelves containing stuffed and mounted specimens.

Twenty years ago, Vanmechelen began crossing various national breeds to create hybrids that are more resilient and fertile than their predecessors. For him, the chicken embodies the beauty and potential of diversity: All breeds can be traced back to a single, original breed, and yet by crossing these descendants, new and better chickens are born.

This interest in diversity, cross-breeding and evolution is further explored in the Cosmopolitan Culture Park, Labiomista’s largest area. Half of the site’s 60 acres have been converted into a kind of zoological park with llamas, alpacas, ostriches, emus, camels and chickens roaming freely. Some of these animals, like the chicken and camels, form part of ongoing projects.

The artist ©Studio Leyssen

For example, one project involves growing mushrooms on camel dung and feeding the mushrooms to chickens. The goal is to transmit the camel’s unique dual immune system to humans who eat the eggs.

It’s a bit esoteric, and also a bit fantastic. But it’s an example of how Vanmechelen’s work crosses the boundaries between science, art and nature.

A concrete pathway winds through the trees and takes visitors on a spatial tour past the animal enclosures as well as a conceptual tour through the artist’s work. Signs in both Dutch and English identify works of art along the route and explain his ideas.

It’s not your usual gallery experience, nor is it quite like any other art experience. But as Vanmechelen says: “Art for art’s sake, art as we know it, can no longer survive.” For him, art has to play a larger role in solving the problems facing society.

“With the contemplation that this place offers, it forces you to slow down and rethink and re-program yourself,” he says. “Here you contemplate culture and nature, and the conflicts between culture and nature.”

These are issues that have always shaped his work – issues that now seem more urgent than ever. When asked if he feels that he was ahead of his time, Vanmechelen is – not surprisingly – philosophical.

“If I hadn’t done this 30 years ago, it would have been too late,” he says. “You have to start there, even when people don’t understand you, to be able to tell this story today. And now I can tell a story that will make a difference in another 20 years. For me, this is a pregnant site. Immunity, fragility, diversity – all are inside. Everything is in place. It’s potential. I hope that people see that.”

Photo top ©Tony Van Galen