Panamarenko - 2011 - Alles over kabinetten [NL, essay],
All about cabinets!
Some words about Panamarenko
Bart De Baere invited me to say something about the variety of objects found in Panamarenko’s house and what that variety says about the importance of experience in his work, which I used to write about so often. De Baere rightly describes Panamarenko’s home as a ‘cabinet of curiosities’. The simultaneous presence of a reel of Kevlar, swallows’ nests from Borneo, fossils, dried insects, corals, a diving helmet, a stuffed hoatzin or shanshu, solar cells, actuators, batteries, a marine aquarium, macaws, dogs, rats and a prize winning nightingale from Hong Kong does, indeed, put you in mind of those engravings of the strange, heterogeneous collections assembled by seventeenth-century savants. However, as Thomas Kuhn has so eloquently suggested, the essence of such collections lies in the fact that the proto-scientists who created them were seeking knowledge and understanding, to be sure, but didn’t know how they might be acquired.
“In the absence of a paradigm or some candidate for paradigm,” Kuhn writes, “all of the facts that could possibly pertain to the development of a given science are likely to seem equally relevant. As a result, early fact-gathering is a far more nearly random activity than the one that subsequent scientific development makes familiar.”1 Anyone who, looking back at those collections, focuses solely on that seemingly naïve lack of direction, is forgetting that he or she is judging from within categories or paradigms that, within a few years, will themselves become obsolete; which, with no absolute grounds, divide the observable world into different fields of research that are as contingent as the typologies applied by those nineteenthcentury scientists who sought to read people’s criminal propensities from the shape of their skulls. Anyone approaching Panamarenko’s work in a similar manner will have the impression that the man is seeking to reconcile disciplines like science, technology, mechanics and art; yet the reality is that he does not actually perceive them as different fields.
How moving when W. G. Sebald – the author of such fine essays and a breath-taking novel about German history and the Holocaust – writes about the death of trees in England! How moving when, in The Periodic Table, Primo Levi intersperses his literary inventions with stories about real adventures in chemistry! How moving when we get to travel with Oliver Sacks and his fern-loving friends; and how moving when we can read his biography as a story about the gradual unveiling of the secrets of chemistry! (To Sacks, the most beautiful thing on earth is Mendeleyev’s table of the elements.) How wonderful to read how affected Richard Dawkins was when he got to see the fossil Tiktaalik roseae (“the lifelong zoologist in me – or perhaps my inner fish – was moved to speechlessness”) or to visit the Large Hadron Collider (“the gigantic scale of this international endeavour moved me to tears”). Is this any more or less moving than Gombrich’s delight at being able to report, in the twenty-second – or was it the forty-third – preface to The Story of Art, the discovery in the 1970s of Greek murals in a royal tomb in Vergina?
Panamarenko is no aimless autodidact, but a person who has studied all his life and, in keeping with Beuys’s ideas about the need to ‘broaden art’, has refused to allow his investigations to be constrained by supposed boundaries. He has frequently amazed me with assertions that I was only able to verify years later. He once told me in a letter that he had seen bluebottles buzzing around a Dutch meadow with tiny stumps of wings, barely larger than match-heads. Years later, I read how American researchers were steadily reducing the wing-size of a particular type of swamp fly, without this preventing the creatures from flying.
In 1995 he told me that his nightingale, Koko, once sang so loud that blood dripped from his eyes. Last year, I read in a history of ornithology that two competing male nightingales are capable of singing until one of them dies. In 1991 he told me that there were lobsters a metre and a half long. In 2003 I read an essay selected by Oliver Sacks telling the story of the world’s leading lobster expert and his encounter with a four-foot specimen on the seabed.
I once asked Panamarenko how the Romans managed to make ice cream using snow brought to Rome from the mountains. We were in a roadside café in Germany, en route for Berlin Zoo, where we were going to see a Poitou donkey. It was already evening. I can remember every word, as if in a recurring, nightly dream: Most chemical processes generate heat,’ he said. ‘A fire, for instance. But some processes draw heat from their surroundings. Like melting ice. If you beat an egg yolk with milk and sugar and then mould a snowball around it and let it melt in the forum in the hot sun, the melting process draws heat from your mixture and causes it to freeze.”
When Panamarenko was little, he had a duck that broke its leg one day going down the stairs. His parents decided to have it put down. When Koko lost his feet, Panamarenko made him new ones, which he tied to the stumps. Last month we sat daydreaming in his new home. In the garden, one of his donkeys had just foaled. He told me that nobody knows exactly what a rainbow is. Or how lightning is possible. Unless it turns out to work like a Geiger counter. But he wasn’t sure. On the table was a skinny cat he had just smuggled out of Morocco on a private jet, hidden in his pocket.
Panamarenko is the most extraordinary person I have ever met.
Montagne de Miel, 5 February 2011
1 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago 1962, p. 15.