Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens

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I just received an invitation to the Koen Vanmechelen exhibit at Conner Contempoary: The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. The reception is Saturday, November 7th from 6-8pm, for those who are interested. This is the first solo exhibition in a U.S. gallery by the celebrated Belgian conceptual artist, who is currently exhibiting in two official 53rd Venice Biennale collateral exhibitions and in the 3rd Moscow Biennial.

First of all, you need to know this: Chickens are HOT right now. It’s true. Urban chicken coops are springing up all over, the chicken is the new ‘right now’ pet, and this is due, not in small part, to the influence of artists. Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegtable, Miracle” extolled the virtues of do-it-yourself farming and the recyclable ‘Egloo’ contemporary chicken coop, designed by art students, is selling like gangbusters – I just read about this in The New Yorker. The chicken is HOT.

And I would expect nothing less from Conner Contemporary, the white behemoth space on Florida avenue, which always seems to be a step ahead of all the other galleries in the region, with a foot firmly planted in the national and international visual art stage. They OBVIOUSLY understand the right now-ness and hotness of the chicken.

But, I have to admit, there is a small part of me that questions this movement in conceptual art towards agriculture. There is a small voice in my head, asking, “Really? Is this really where art is going?” And I don’t know how I feel about it.

In the press release, this project is explained in great detail and sounds more like a science fair or 4-H project than a Venice Biennial exhibit.

“In his ongoing global enterprise, The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, Vanmechelen is systematically crossing all breeds of chickens to create a world-mongrel chicken. His premise is that each country/region selectively cultivated a breed of chicken expressing its cultural identity.”

This seems kind of obvious to me – are there really NO farmers out there doing this already? Did the artist invent this concept? The press release also said that the exhibit will include live chickens, taxidermy sculpture, video, photography, drawings, as well as egg tempera paintings – made from eggs laid by the artist’s chickens, of course. If this is a conceptual project, then why are these elements of decorative ephemera necessary? Why not just have the chickens pecking around and the artist talking about them? Or a video documentary? If the artist’s intent is to “reinvigorate the species with genetic integrity which centuries of domestication and inbreeding have diminished,” then why do we need any decorative touches?

Is it possible that conceptual artists want it both ways? What I am getting at is this: the conceptual art ‘brand’ is a powerful one. It imbues artwork with legitimacy, righteousness, and morality. It also, by its very nature, makes the art object obsolete. The concept is what is important, so process and craft are, at best, a byproduct. This is all okay with me, for artists who choose to toe this line faithfully.

However, and this is what bothered me about the BDC winning the Sondheim Prize, WHY do conceptual artists need to include any artwork at all? Why not just document the project as accurately as possible with the media that works best – drawing, video, photos, whatever – and leave it at that? I remember reading an article about the BDC, where one member shrugged off their expensive art-school education saying,”I can’t remember the last time I picked up a paint brush,” which is FINE, but then WHY am I looking at these cardboard sculptures? Same deal with the egg tempera.

I have a problem with conceptual artists who shroud their work in the HUGE and secure mantle of “posing ethical questions and promoting communication and interaction across many types of boundaries, between geographical areas, races, cultures, ideologies, and professional disciplines, such as art and science” while hanging paintings on the walls and expecting collectors to purchase them, regardless of skill or appearance, because of a great idea.

The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is a brilliant, moral, and worthy concept. There’s no denying that and I can get behind it. What I question is using a concept as a crutch. No one can argue with the artist’s ideas or intent, therefore the artifacts are also deemed foolproof. Is this what art is all about? Ideas alone? Or an execution of ideas, verbal and nonverbal, and their interaction with specific types of media? Let’s face it, a concept is much easier to defend than process.

I’m not saying that Koen Vanmechelen is using his concepts as a crutch or that his work isn’t good. I haven’t seen the show, so I can’t judge it. Artists have always courted the avant-garde, which translates to rediscovering and repackaging the uncoolest stuff from a few years ago. Where I grew up, this would mean farming and marching band and Jehovah’s Witnesses, no offense to anyone.

Does this mean that the next hip art project will involve tall, fuzzy hats with brocade, a negation of birthdays, and hydroponic tomatoes? I guess only time will tell, but one thing is for certain: to make the world’s hippest, best, most right-now omelette, you’re going to have to break some eggs.

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