In the Museum for Modern Art in Antwerp, the MHKA (previously with the better name: MuHKA) space was given to an inventor, technician, mathematician, philosopher and visionary who in the 1960 got lots of problems with the authority and got taken in custody and fined a few times.
That it pays to let your mind to go off the free passage and not to worry about what the outside world, that will not be open to other thoughts, thinks of you, proves the artist, , inventor, engineer, mathematician, philosopher and visionary, Henri Van Herwegen alias Panamarenko, born in 1940.
For a museum is not easy to place him under one umbrella Antwerp. This multi-facet artist can not be given just one ‘tag’. It is virtually impossible to categorise this artist’s work in a particular style or movement in contemporary art because of the unique and innovative nature of his oeuvre. Panamarenko was always exploring new avenues by means of drawings, writings and calculations. He showed things that were not fully visible and for this purpose relied on our imagination. His combination of artistic insight and technological experiment gives his spectacular constructions an odd sort of beauty, both playful and imposing.
‘I am not a scientist, nor someone who makes art objects. To me the most important thing is that the things I make occasionally contain a sort of poetry.’
Panamarenko takes a central place in the approach to art of the M HKA, which takes as its point of departure the avant-garde of the 1960s, where local stood synonymous for open and international. For the M HKA, the central position of Panamarenko is expressed in the museum’s most ambitious project of the past decade: the renovation and refurbishment of Panamarenko’s studio on Biekorfstraat, in Antwerp’s legendary Seefhoek district. Since then, the M HKA has also acquired the Panamarenko archive of Paul Morrens. The exhibition Panamarenko Universum is yet another step in the sustained commitment of an Antwerp museum devoted to a key artist of the city. Whereas the challenge of making the Biekorfstraat into a public monument lay in the complexity of the peripheral material that surrounds this oeuvre, with Panamarenko Universum, M HKA now focuses on the very core of the artist’s work.
As with so many Flemish artists, the art scene has devoted little energy to creating a meaningful context around Panamarenko’s oeuvre. He was mainly seen as a ‘strange fellow’ with magical sculptures. The retrospective Panamarenko Universum does not aim to bring together as many works or material as possible – the M HKA possesses much more material than it can ever show – but wants to explore both the works and the interconnective context that could possibly constitute the foundation of Panamarenko’s oeuvre. For the first time, the multitude of vehicles and devices Panamarenko has created between 1965 and 2005 is organised into a thematic and chronological overview. In this way, Panamarenko Universum aims to create both a clear and varied picture of Panamarenko’s impressive oeuvre.
We can say the MHKA made a good job with the nicely constructed exhibition “Panamarenko Universum”. They wonderfully managed to present a beautiful picture of the versatility of this artist who sometimes was seen by many as a strange or crazy person.
Panamarenko Universum shows how and why the artist developed into an icon of this postwar European avant-garde. At least forty key works are supplemented by drawings, objects, models and editions. In addition, there is also a focus on Panamarenko’s 1960s happenings, his scientific insights and his artistic statements. After the happenings which Panamarenko organized in Antwerp he continued on the basis of drawings, texts and calculations always to scan new possibilities wanting to show people things that are not visible at all, and asking the audience to appeal to their imagination. The combination of artistic insight and technological experiment give spectacular constructions which possess a strange beauty, at once playful and impressive.
The works are placed according a thematic and chronological structure giving attention to the abundance of craft and devices that Panamarenko made between 1965 and 2005.
Panamarenko Universum presents a clear and yet varied picture of his unique oeuvre and shows how and why the artist developed into an icon of this postwar European avant-garde.
For years he brought one strange thing after the other to surprise everybody. Sutprise it was also when in 2005 he announced that he had come to the end of his artistic career on his sixty-fifth birthday. As succinctly as unexpected the fax told:
“It’s 2005 and I’m 65. I’m going to stop all activities. Many greetings. Panamarenko.”
Panamarenko Universum is the large one-time return of Panamarenko to his hometown, Antwerp. Nearly ten years after the retrospective at the KMSK in Brussels, M HKA devotes a unique retrospective to the work of Panamarenko.
The retrospective Panamarenko Universum does not aim to amass as many works or material as possible – the M HKA possesses more material than it could ever display – but wants to explore both the works and the interconnectivity that could constitute the foundation of Panamarenko’s oeuvre. At the exhibition we could find less works than at the exhibtion a few years ago in Brussels but the concept was totally different and also very interesting plus inviting the public to view it from an other perspective, nearly trying to get you in the mind of the visionary artist.
For the first time, the multitude of vehicles and devices Panamarenko created between 1965 and 2005 has been organised into a thematic and chronological overview. As such, Panamarenko Universum aims to create both a clear and varied picture of Panamarenko’s impressive oeuvre.
Born in 1940 Henri Van Herwegen took on the pseudonym from the Russian general called General Panamarenko which he heard mentioned at his homemade transistor radio in a Perspex box in 1958. He succeeded in receiving a station from the then GDR (East Germany), which was enough reason to find him very suspect at that time.
Panamarenko’s career started in the 1960s as the inspirer of several happenings, playful street performances that he orchestrated in the centre of Antwerp. At that time he focused on human action, and chance playd a major role, having the outcome not usually known in advance. In the wake of May 68, Panamarenko, Hugo Heyrman and others set up the Vrije Aktiegroep Antwerpen (VAGA, ‘Antwerp Free Action Group’). This was an informal group of individuals who raised difficult social and ecological issues. One of its aims was to proclaim the beautiful Conscienceplein (the square of Hendrik Conscience) in Antwerp a car-free zone. Panamarenko had the idea of stacking blocks of ice in the form of a cube so that they froze to the ground and formed a natural barrier to traffic. This Ijsblokkenactie was a success, because the city council finally gave way and banned cars from the square.
On the initiative of Panamarenko, Hugo Heyrman, Wout Vercammen and Yoshio Nakajima the avant-garde magazine Happening News first appeared in September 1965 mostly containing photocopied collages rooted in Dadaism and Surrealism. This magazine revealed several of the fascinations and sources of inspiration that were to recur and be materialised in his later oeuvre.
Conquering space – Fixed-wings & zeppelins
As from the 1970s, Panamarenko wanted to conquer the lowermost part of the atmosphere. The building of his first airship, The Aeromodeller, in 1971, was an extension of the happenings and embodied the artist’s dream of being free at all times to move freely through the atmosphere. The Piewan (Deltavliegtuig P1), equipped with twenty electric motors, was made entirely of tin sheeting. The notable thing about this device was that its fuselage was also its wing. The V1 Barada Jet is a wooden jet aircraft with short, solid wings. It has a powerful appearance and Panamarenko considered it one of his most convincing designs. The artist’s interest in animals and physics, combined with his fascination for aviation and mechanics, led to a far-reaching study of the vibration mechanism in insect wings. Such principles as resonance and vibration frequency were applied to pedal-driven light aircraft such as Umbilly I and the Grote Quadru Flip-Flop. Panamarenko based his Raven’s variable matrix and Ijsvogel on the flapping of birds’ wings.
From early drawings of this aircraft it is apparent that Panamarenko initially wanted to construct the Donderwolk as an aircraft driven by manpower. The final craft is a combination of • propeller-driven aircraft and • glider. The closed, compact cockpit looks like that of an old fighter aircraft and is made of aluminium and Perspex. The inside is clad with felt to make it more comfortable for the pilot to sit in’. At the back of the craft is a go-cart engine of 10 horsepower. The propeller has a diameter of 80 cm and turns at 5000 revolutions per minute. For its delta wing, Panamarenko used strong cotton, which his mother sewed together, permeated with liquid rubber. The dark colour of the rubber explains the title of the work. This wings can be steered using cables operated by two levers in the cockpit.
In the catalogue for Documenta V, Panamarenko makes the following laconic remark about Donderwolk:
‘Strong, light aircraft. Not yet tried out.’
From the early 1970, Panamarenko tried to transpose the vibration mechanism of insects to light, pedal-driven flying machines. According to him, flapping wings could well be the most efficient form of man-powered flying. But although the flapping wing looks simple at first sight, it is much more complex than the fixed wing or the helicopter. Since humans lack a natural mechanism, according to Panamarenko we have to compensate for this by means of a construction that employs our highly developed leg muscles. The various Meganeudons and Umbillys are all founded on the same basic idea: between the power source and the wings is a spring that produces the vibration typical of insect wings. Because both of the wings are linked to the spring, they keep each other in balance and each stroke of the wing is automatically followed by a sprung backstroke. In 1986 Panamarenko built the Encarsia Formosa, named after an ichneumon-fly with vibrating wings. He sees the existence of this insect as proof that his wing mechanism is based on a reliable principle.
Revolutions per minute
In the 1970s, to create devices that take off vertically, Panamarenko concentrated his research on rotation speed and lifting power. Portable Air Transport (P.A.T. for short), a small, portable flying machine from 1969, is the earliest craft in this collection. Panamarenko here explored mechanics in greater depth and developed a series of compact but powerful Pastille Motors to power his rucksack helicopters. The name Pastille Motor refers to the round, flat shape reminiscent of a large aspirin. The engine must not weigh more than twelve kg, while five kilos of fuel should be sufficient for twenty minutes’ flying. The power mechanism in these rucksack devices continued to evolve over the years. The Super Pepto Bismo, for example, is powered by a series of short lift-propellers driven by small but powerful engines. In 1986, on the basis of an illustrated text from the early 1970s, Panamarenko built his pedaldriven Helikopter. During a trip to Peru in 1990, the artist decided to make a hover-car (K2) which, so as to be able to fly between the trees, had to be a craft without propellers and without wings.
In the publication The Helicopter as a Potential Winner, Panamarenko describes in words and images the aerodynamic calculations, construction and choice of materials by which means a human-powered helicopter should be built. It is powered by the hands and feet and the total weight (including a pilot of 60 kg) must not exceed 71 kg. The main problem is achieving the greatest possible lifting power and the most manoeuvrable possible machine with a minimum of weight. However, according to Panamarenko these problems are not insurmountable because a helicopter is a simple craft that does not need a large wing area and which, above all, can be built very quickly in a small space, where it can also be tested without the need for an airfield or runway.
Lift the machine
In the 1980s and 1990s, Panamarenko was looking for new ways to lift himself into the air (and far beyond). He was now engaged in high-altitude aviation. The 1979 experiment called Magnetische velden demonstrated that electromagnetic power had the greatest chance of success in propelling a flying saucer out of the earth’s atmosphere beyond the reach of gravity. Under the heading Reis naar de sterren, he devised and designed numerous flying and hovering saucers. He accompanied the VIiegende Schotel installation with a typed statement of his theory of space, in which he cunningly used opposing magnetic poles to make spheres and saucers surf freely through the cosmos. In 1983, the Droma magnetic rotor led to the construction of the Grote Plumbiet. When the synchronised mechanism of the magnetic cylinders turns, powerful magnetic forces are generated in the field above the machine. Metal discs and flying saucers are able to hover in this magnetic field. ‘Keep the opposing poles in balance, and lift the machine!’
Panamarenko developed Bing of the Ferro Lusto and Bing II as hybrid machines suitable for flying through both the atmosphere and outer space. They were intended to travel between the planets and the cosmic mothership Ferro Lusto, and these flying saucers have to be seen as part of a much larger whole. Bing II was powered using air and has three 4D booster engines developed on the basis of the Tonodel of Space theory. The engine consists of two cylinders set in parallel in a metal block. Four pistons make alternate upward and sideways movements. The drive power develops on the basis of the difference in speed and mass in contrast with the direction of movement of the earth and solar system, boosted by centrifugal force. Panamarenko was optimistic about the good performance of the device:
if my theory is right, it signals of the bankruptcy of all the oil sheiks, because I directly tap the energy of the Big Bang…’
With his theory of closed systems, as from 1968 Panamarenko tried to prove the possibility of launching a mass out into space, with the energy needed for its forward movement contained in a closed system. He clarified his theory by means of a coin that he flipped away with his thumb. Panamarenko did a drawing of the trajectory of the coin, which resulted in a geometrical figure with various speeds. By replacing the coin by an electron whose mass, circumference and speed are known, he subsequently arrives at a standard formula to calculate the revolution and changes of speed of the planets and stars. However, the drawings and calculations encountered considerable opposition from established scientists. By involving the fourth dimension in his theory, Panamarenko gained a new galactic insight, which in the early 1990s resulted in a theory of space which he called his Toymodel of Space. He explained the theory in a short film in 1993, in which he outlines his view of how the universe works.
Engineered to go to sea
From the air into the sea is just a small step.
In the 1990s, Panamarenko explored the mysteries of the sea. He devised craft and equipment to dive more rapidly and to float with greater stability. However functional and ingenious this work is, aesthetics and adventure still came first and foremost. The first real water device was a sophisticated diving suit, intended for walking over the gentle slopes of the seabed. Panamarenko tested The Portuguese Man of War on the Maldives in 1990. To gauge the depth of the sea, in 1992 he designed the Grote elleboog, his first deep-sea diving device. The Monocedo is a helicopter which, thanks to two floats, can take off and land anywhere. On a metal axle between the two floats is a wooden seat for the pilot. In 1999 several lines of research came together: Panamarenko built an imposing flying boat on 8 elongated floats and powered by aircraft engines. This, the Scotch Gambit, was his biggest creation, and was based on two sketches from his early years (dated 1966 and 1970).
The steel submarine called Pahama Nova Zemblaya, whose shape is a clear reference to Walvis, an early object from 1967, exudes grace and strength, but at the same time is refined and elegant. Panamarenko had wanted to build a compact submarine for some time, in which to sail to the Far North. It was not until the mid-1990s that he found the desired engine in a shop selling boat parts at Antwerp harbour.
At the top the submarine has a broad shaft that serves as an air duct and lookout tower. The bows of the boat have a big round panel in Perspex so as to be able to view the underwater life. The entire hull is varnished with a silver-grey coating of shiny epoxy resin, which leaves the numerous welds visible. The complete construction weighs no less than 3000 kg and can submerge to a depth of 7 m. Panamarenko created this submarine to sail from the River Scheldt to Nova Zembla via Spitsbergen, but the trip was cancelled because of all sorts of practical and organisational constraints.
As well as imposing craft, as from the end of the 1990s Panamarenko also built small but intelligent birds and walking robots. The intelligence of the mechanics – with relays, servos and microchips – is directly in proportion to the refinement of their execution. In 2004 Panamarenko built Vogelmarkt, a poetic installation of three tables with an sun-awning as the setting for a demonstration of three walking chickens. The three birds in vivid colours are equipped with a small electric motor powered by a battery.
The birds’ stepping mechanism refers back to the 1994 work Knikkebeen, an insect-like device on long aluminium legs that enable it to walk around more easily in the Swiss mountains. Panamarenko’s first fully-developed project for a robot was shown in an early drawing from 1970. It was only in 2004 that he decided to carry out the design as a working robot. In the summer of that year he took the device, called Arlikoop, with him to the North Pole, where he shot a series of films of it with the vast fields of snow and ice as a backdrop
When Panamarenko tried to imitate the flapping of insect wings mechanically, he gradually started to become increasingly interested in prehistoric birds. This gave him the idea of constructing his ‘flying chicken’, as he liked to call his Archaeopterix, by taking the. example of this prehistoric creature. The archaeopteryx is a fossil bird from the Late Jurassic period. This creature has certain features of reptiles, such as a serrated beak full of pointed teeth, a long bony tail and membranous wings. According to a thesis formulated 140 years ago, the archaeopteryx was the first bird to be descended from the dinosaurs. Panamarenko’s very first Archaeopterix was a chicken-like bird that is able to walk around autonomously powered by built-in photoelectric cells.
It is guided by sensors and has a chip in its body that is the nerve centre from which all its commands are given. This was later followed by walking and/or moving versions in which Panamarenko continued experimenting with the controls, the stepping mechanism and the power source.
Antwerp museum taking care of its citizen
With the exhibition Panamarenko Universum the MKHA, as museum of contemporary arts presents in a very nice way the works of the Antwerp artist. It also parallel to the exhibition continues its work on the digitization and making publicly available of Panamarenko’s oeuvre presenting also an online platform, hosted on ensembles.org, still being updated and expanded.
Embracing the possibilities of new media, M HKA is making an effort to share its knowledge and trying to get children, the future visitors involved as well, by offering a nice worksstudio where the kids could work in the fashion of the artist. I noticed many enthusiast kids who did their best to create all sorts of flying ‘animal’ or ‘objects’.
The M HKA Ensembles is a web tool – used by the entire organisation – that targets a sustainable digital organization of information and insights. At this moment it contains multi-media information of over 7000 works of art by more than 2000 artists. Now, with a public version, they share a substantial selection, which I only can advice you to go to visit.
– Text: MHKA, Hans Willemse, Bart De Baere and Marcus Ampe
Photo’s: Marcus Ampe
Dutch version / Nederlandstalige versie: Een oog op de artiest en visionaire fantast rare kwiet Panamarenko
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