Panamarenko - 2014 - A Plea to Broaden Art [EN, essay]
Escaping a creepy world of art
On being with Panamarenko
My first encounter with Panamarenko was in November 1988. He was 48 years old at the time, I was 25. Now that I am 51, I view that first meeting in a different light. In 1988 it was just twenty years since Joseph Beuys had invited Panamarenko to exhibit Das Flugzeug (The Aeroplane) – then regarded as a poetic object – at Düsseldorf academy. Three years later, in 1972, Panamarenko showed The Aeromodeller at the famous ‘Documenta V’. In 1988 those dates seemed to me very distant. Now I understand that twenty years is nothing and that for my generation, for example, it was not without its significance that we had been born just twenty years after the end of the Second World War and that our parents, who were as old as Panamarenko, had grown up during and shortly after those horrors. The timing was not without its significance for two reasons. Firstly, because my parents’ generation had been marked in some way by the war (the same applied for example to the parents of Luc Tuymans, who was born in 1958) and, secondly, because they were inspired by the new economic, social and cultural possibilities. I believe it is true to say that Panamarenko, whose parents were workers, grew up in an angst-ridden atmosphere of material uncertainty, but also in a world in which the new technological possibilities seemed inexhaustible. The 1980s were very different, when as a young adult I grew up in a world of disillusionment, with limited economic prospects and, apart from in the theatre, little cultural movement.
Be this as it may, I met Panamarenko in 1988, barely twenty years after the exhibition in Düsseldorf where he had shown Das Flugzeug, which had awoken him to the fact that technical realizations could be deemed to belong to the domain of art. In the meantime, and especially during the first half of the 1970s, he had developed numerous ‘contraptions’, most of which had been built, exhibited and sold. I myself had studied Philosophy and Literature and through the theatre world in which I had played a modest role, I had got to know several young painters who asked me if I would write about their work. Because my academic studies seemed to me insufficient qualification for the task, I asked them who they regarded as the most famous artist in Belgium, in the hope of learning more about that artist. Panamarenko’s name came up every time. (Luc Tuymans, whose work I had seen at the Thermae Palace in Ostend in 1985, was as yet unknown). At the time, the painter Damien De Lepeleire and I were publishing an art journal which had a circulation of around 100 copies. I decided to interview Panamarenko for the journal and asked the art critic Véronique Daneels to introduce me to him. We drove to Antwerp in a modest family car, but in the city centre Daneels lost her way. When we asked a cyclist if he knew where Panamarenko lived, he suggested that he lead the way on his bicycle and that was how I arrived at Panamarenko’s house for the first time, trying to keep up with a frantically pedalling and wildly gesticulating cyclist.
During that first meeting, which lasted many hours, we agreed that I should return in three months for the interview, by which time I would have forgotten everything Panamarenko had told me that day. And that is what happened. The interview appeared as a supplement to the journal on April 4th 1989. It was called Knockando, after the whisky we had drunk during our first meeting and compared to the contents of a bottle of Glenfiddich which I had taken along. Véronique Daneels was sure that Panamarenko drank a lot of whisky, which turned out not to be the case at all. In fact, he drank Coca Cola. He only drank alcohol when he was with other people and feeling disconcerted or bored. Panamarenko was the first person I met who did fascinating things and didn’t drink.
At the same time, I had something to offer him. He wondered if Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and other philosophers and writers were really as extraordinary as was claimed: “I am asking your advice on the subject”, he wrote to me. “Is there such a thing as literature?” I supplied him with books, which he sometimes read in one night, including Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. He enthusiastically labelled it his favourite book and designed a new cover for it that same night.
Between 1989 and 1998 I worked with Panamarenko on several new sculptures, I helped him build exhibitions and I produced texts, books, photographs and video films about his work. The first time, in June 1989, we set off together to the Furka Pass in Switzerland to try and get a Pastille motor to work. We spent two weeks trying, to no avail. But we certainly gave it our best shot. The partitions were adjusted and oiled, the fuel mixture was adapted, the spark plug was cleaned scores of times, yet nothing helped. This is how I came to realize that Panamarenko was serious about his work and I saw how this kind of experiment inevitably met the same sort of end: it was left in a state of incompletion and sold to a museum in Lyon. The complex apparatus and the various tools we had left behind together with the contrivance attached to a table, were withheld by the miserly dealer, thereby depriving the museum visitor of the adventure. In September of that same year we returned to test a small glacier tank called Prince Myshkin, which was powered by two electric drills. The main problems were with the gears and the chain. This time, it seemed, Panamarenko had deviated altogether from his oeuvre and was just busying himself with some sort of toy. But this was mere semblance. Panamarenko only ever made toys and he tackled them with the earnestness they deserved. In June 1990 we flew to the Maldives to test the diving equipment Portuguese Man of War. In September 1990 we worked on the flying car K2. In 1992 we tested a new Big Elbow in the sea between Japan and China together with the gallery owner Tokoro. In 1995 I helped Panamarenko build the flying platform Bernouilli and the submarine Panama and in 1998 the flying boat Scotch Gambit.
The Portuguese Man of War diving apparatus
MuZee invited me to say something about our maritime adventures, so I will begin with the Portuguese Man of War, a set of diving equipment named after a jelly-like marine animal. The run-up to the Portuguese Man of War involved testing a sort of underwater bicycle named Elleboog or Big Elbow. At first Panamarenko wanted to test Elbow in the West Scheldt because he had heard that a well-known gentleman from the museum world, who also went deep-sea diving, had once caught a one-and-a-half-meter lobster there. Slightly disheartened, we stood on the bank of this large, dark and cold expanse of water and decided to try somewhere else. Week after week we hired a public swimming pool in Montagne de Miel where we could tinker, take photographs and film undisturbed. In that swimming pool I learned to swim with open eyes so as to be able to take photographs under water.
Elbow consisted of a staff with a handle on one side and/or a belt to gird the device and, on the other side, a buoy, pedals and a screw propeller. The bulk of the work was designing the handle, the buoy and in particular the screw propeller. I remember four screw propellers which differed in shape and material. They were made of carbon-fibre, wood and one partly of metal. The idea was that they should not be too big or too heavy, but displace a lot of water. To test Elbow Panamarenko had made a special diving mask with a windpipe. He just pulled on the elastic chinstrap above water to allow excess water to escape. This may have been what led to the principle of the Portuguese Man of War, which consisted of the diver adjusting the pressure in the diver’s helmet to the pressure round about by pumping more or less air into the helmet, which was conveyed through a transparent hose attached to an inflated inner tube that bobbed up and down on the surface of the sea. If there was excess pressure in the helmet, the air escaped at the bottom through a movable rubber flap which encircled the neck. If there was too little pressure, then that same flap allowed the water in. So the diver knew when he had to pump harder: when his helmet filled up with water. Two lead blocks were stuck onto the helmet. The helmet was also attached by means of lengths of string to a halter which encircled the diver’s body. Both precautions prevented the helmet shooting up when under water because of the air content. The diver also wore a lead belt. One day the apparatus was checked by a diving instructor who felt responsible, but after that he nevertheless supplied us with extra lead.
The deeper the diver walked over the coral reef, the harder he had to pump. Often, however, something would break or the diver was exhausted after just a few minutes by the effort and the barely suppressed fear, so that the helmet filled up with water. Then it was a question of releasing the lead belt (and not the halter, which had the same closure) so as to be able to resurface. Once back up, the helmet didn’t empty, however, because the rubber border around your neck had to be above the water surface which was impossible to achieve on your own because the helmet was fixed to the halter. You had to remain calm and find a rock to clamber onto or someone had to raise you up out of the water so that you could let the water escape. And so it was that I almost drowned a couple of times, surrounded by air, with a murky view of a tropical island, until the arm of a giant, who himself was holding onto a rock, raised me above the water in the nick of time. Our experiments lasted two weeks. Every day we tinkered with the diving equipment with the few resources available, including a rubber glove belonging to the cook, a part of which had to prevent water getting into the air supply through the pump shaft. Every day we ate fried chunks of fish, which had probably come from a large deep-freeze. There was also a shack where you could order ice creams, but despite the impressive menu there was only one sort of ice cream available. There was a little shop, but there was nothing to buy, apart from garishly printed towels and useless souvenirs. Our towels and clothes were never dry. There was no air-conditioning. There were lots of midges and ants, which Panamarenko quite took to until they formed a procession over his bed intent on biting him on the way. In short, it was hell on earth. And so one day Xavier, who had accompanied us, left the island in a matter of minutes by jumping onto a departing boat, leaving behind some of his luggage.
Unperturbed we went on diving, tinkering, taking photographs and filming. I wanted a photograph of myself reading on the bottom of the ocean. Panamarenko wanted a film in which you first saw a shark and a school of fish swimming and then me diving. His films were always a dismal failure because I couldn’t dive long enough for the slow, fauna-spanning camera movement Panamarenko had in mind. After every dive we hurried to the beach to look at the film, which usually contained nothing worth seeing, apart perhaps from a small colourful fish which Panamarenko had swum after for a minute or two before encountering me with a graceful camera movement walking somewhere on the bottom of the sea, by which time I was usually choking as I trod water while holding my helmet high above the sloshing surface of the sea in an attempt to empty it.
At the end of those two weeks we walked to a skip and Panamarenko smashed both helmets to pieces. Presumably he wanted to prevent a less fortunate someone trying out our equipment.
The submarine PANAMA
In June 1995 Panamarenko informed me that after long deliberation he had decided on a new enterprise. In a boat shop he had seen an emerald-green, Lister diesel generator, which we went to look at together. It was delivered that same afternoon. Around that generator, he explained, we would build a submarine to look as if it had emerged from the generator. “Because that boat is already in that generator.” By way of a model he adapted drawings of the poetic object Whale dating from 1967. We then went to a lift factory to buy 7-mm-thick steel plates and we started folding, cutting and welding. He had had several sheets cut into strips and we used them to make the profiles for the frame of the boat. Sheets were welded around that frame. To enable us to reach every part of it, the submarine, which eventually weighed two tons, was hung from the ceiling and rotated like a spit by means of pulleys and chains. The welding took a long time, because the motto was: ‘triple weld’. Not a drop of water should be able to seep in. So I spent three months welding, until I learned that the boat would not be tested, but exhibited in a gallery. I was terribly disappointed. We had found a place at a sailing club where the boat could be placed on the dry bottom of the Scheldt using a crane and where we could wait for the rising tide to see if the boat was watertight. Years later Panamarenko told me that he had not believed it possible. I would like to have tested the boat, if only to see if the triple weld had worked.
The flying boat Scotch Gambit
Scotch Gambit, the stilt-walker, is a flying boat on floats, powered by two aeroplane engines. The floats and the stilts support a basic construction which serves as the framework for the bodywork, but of course it also supports the heavy engines. The whole thing consists of three parts screwed and strapped together. We had planned to have the boat float in a dock on the Scheldt along with a landing stage that would rise and fall with the tide, but the City of Antwerp was not interested. The last time I discussed the boat with Panamarenko, a few months ago, he expressed the desire to replace the aeroplane engines with outboard motors on the floats.
Panamarenko had told me several times that he had the iron frame of a boat up in the attic. He had begun welding it with his father in the seventies, but work had come to a standstill after a difference of opinion about the permissibility of foul language while working. In 1998 I arrived at Ronny Van de Velde’s gallery and I saw a large part of the already rusted structure of the boat-to-be, which would be finished with two-millimetre steel plate. When the aluminium supporting structure and the huge floats also arrived, we started building. Thousands of mini-bolts and after that Parker screws in holes that were slightly too big held the sheets in place, but not too tightly to prevent them creasing. As was the case with the submarine, it was again a question of bending steel plate in two directions, which is impossible to do without making dents. And so it was that I discovered that Panamarenko really wanted to make streamlined bodywork in an impossible way (without rolling). The same applies to all his work: he invariably tried to achieve something in a way that didn’t stand an earthly chance of succeeding. Consequently, he learned more about materials and techniques than someone who sets to work in a more customary manner.
When we dived in the Indian Ocean in 1990 Panamarenko was convinced of the unicity of that moment. As a young man I didn’t know that such moments are rare. Now that I myself have reached the age he was then, I am glad I had such an intense experience because it became a yardstick for everything that followed. Together on a squalid coral island no larger than six football pitches, we briefly escaped the horrific world of art, not by practising a sport, but by means of a self-built contrivance fighting with water, air and gravity. “Looking for novelty and amusement,” I wrote at the time, “they proved to be man enough to face the darkness.” I was a hypochondriac who dreamed of a more light-footed life and in those days read both Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Plutarch’s Life of Greeks. “Rivets!” shouted the hero of Heart of Darkness, “we want rivets!” The rivet as consolation for despair, the tinkering as a secret remedy for melancholy. Not ‘bricolage’ in the sense given to the word by Claude Lévi-Strauss: the preservation of useless objects in the hope of one day being able to put them to good use in an inappropriate way. Because Panamarenko was not a ‘bricoleur’, but a tinkering thinker. Take the titles of his works! Polistes! The dark-green gall wasp with a figure like Ava Gardner. Scotch Gambit! Men in skirts showing off the family jewels, but also a word from the world of chess and a move designed to bewilder the lovers of the Franco-American concept. And together with Panamarenko I invented a character that wanted to become who he was by taking the trials and tribulations of life less seriously and fantasizing about a world in which you could always deal with things as if for the first and also the last time.
Montagne de Miel, July 2nd 2014