– Summer 2014

Panamarenko: A Plea to Broaden Art

Jeremy Millar

Panamarenko testing the rucksack plane Hareback (1992—98) in 1992. Photograph: Hans Theys. Courtesy the artist

Montagne de Miel, Belgium, Friday, 21 March 2014. I am working on my second big book about the work of Belgian artist Panamarenko. My desk, the windowsill, the leather armchair and the wooden
floor are scattered with hundreds of photographs: pictures of cluttered interiors, mechanical parts, animals, strange objects, museum exhibitions. A detail of the steel torsion spring of Umbilly I (1976), giraffes in Botswana, a rubber car named Polistes (1975), Hedy Lamarr, a dried piranha from Brazil, a man posing on top of the Swiss mountain Galenstock, two men in asbestos suits filling the zeppelin The Aeromodeller (1969—71) with hydrogen gas, a barricade made of blocks of ice in the centre of Antwerp, a man wearing an army uniform in front of a blackboard, a workbench 
with a voltmeter, a brass rocket, a mechanic trying out a human-powered aircraft, a diver on the bottom of the Indian Ocean, a parrot with an orange-peel beret and 
so on. Scattered about in a jumble, like
 an impudent, overgrown collage, these photographs remind you of the diligently compiled seventeenth-century curiosity cabinets that marked the first step towards modern empirical science. And yet, this represents more than a coincidental collection of curios, for all these things are part of the personal universe of Panamarenko. And Panamarenko is no collector; he makes things.

  1. On 14 December 2006, Panamarenko gave this house to the Flemish government. It has subsequently been provided with a helicopter-landing platform by the architect Luc Deleu (TOP Office) and conserved under the guidance of the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA) and Bart De Baere, the museum’s director. It can now be visited as a museum. For more information on this, see Hans Willemse (ed.), Panamarenko: Workstation Biekorfstraat, Antwerp: Linkeroever uitgevers, 2010, p.237.

  2. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, p.15.

  3. Panamarenko has frequently amazed me with assertions I was only able to verify years later. He once told me that he had seen bluebottles buzzing around a Dutch meadow with tiny stumps of wings, barely larger than the heads of matches. Years later, I read how US researchers were steadily reducing the wing size of a particular type of swamp fly without preventing the creatures from flying. In 1995, 
he told me that his favourite nightingale, Koko, once sang so loud that blood dripped from its eyes. Last year, I read in a history of ornithology that two competing male nightingales are capable of singing until one of them dies. See Tim R. Birkhead, The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology, New York: Bloomsbury, 2008.

  4. ‘Panamarenko’, curated by Joseph Beuys, Staatliche Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf, 16 May—30 June 1968.

  5. Lawrence Alloway, ‘The Development of British Pop’, in Lucy R. Lippard (ed.), Pop Art, London: 
Thames & Hudson, 1966, p.32.

  6. ‘Knockando! Panamarenko interviewed by Hans Theys’, Nous Magazine, 28 November 1988, p.6. 
According to Alloway, the picture of Robbie the Robot was one of the most striking images of the iconic 
exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1956).

  7. Hans Theys, ‘Ping le sous-marin. Entretiens avec Panamarenko’, in Panamarenko: La Grande expositiondes soucoupes volantes (exh. cat.), Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, 1998, p.59.

  8. L. Alloway, ‘The Development of British Pop’, op. cit., p.32.

  9. Primo Levi and Tullio Regge, Conversations (1984, trans. Raymond Rosenthal), London: I.B. Tauris, 1989, p.16.

  10. Leopold Flam, Liber Amicorum, Brussels: VUB Press, p.347. Translation the author’s.

  11. More details about this theory can be found in a beautiful book designed by the artist himself: Panamarenko, The Mechanisms of Gravity, Closed Systems, Bielefeld: Marzona, 1975.

  12. See Panamarenko, For Clever Scholars, Astronomers and Doctors, Ghent: Ludion, 2001.

  13. ‘Panamarenko: The Retrospective!’, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels, 30 September 2005—29 January 2006.