Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (M HKA / Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Panamarenko - 2014 - A Plea to Broaden Art [EN, essay]
Text , 6 p.


Hans Theys

A Plea to Broaden Art
About Panamarenko’s work

Montagne de Miel, Sunday 5 April, 1992. I’m working on a big book about Panamarenko’s work. My desk, the windowsill, the leather armchair and the wooden floor are scattered with hundreds of photographs: photos of cluttered interiors, action photos, photos of mechanical parts, photos of animals, of strange objects, of exhibitions in museums. A detail of the steel torsion spring of Umbilly I, giraffes in Botswana, the rubber car Polistes without wheel caps, Hedy Lamarr, a black and a white swallow's nest, a dried piranha from Brazil, a man posing on top of the Swiss mountain Galenstock, the filling with hydrogen gas of the zeppelin The Aeromodeller, 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 model airship, a mechanic trying out a manpowered aircraft, a pit covered with canvas, in which somebody is doing something with copper coils the size of peat bags, 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 photos remind one of those diligently compiled 17th-century curiosity cabinets that marked the first step towards modern empirical science. And yet this represents more than a coincidental collection of curios. Panamarenko is no collector. He makes things. And all these things are connected through the word experience. Sometimes in the sense of an experiment, often in the sense of a conscious recording of a moment, really experiencing something that is generally considered as a matter of course.

When you entered Panamarenko’s house, at the ground floor, you first met a place where he did his dangerous experiments with engines and propellers and where he constructed the larger objects. This place was stuffed with electric gear, welding equipment, propellers, all kinds of saws and drills, unfinished objects, etc. When you walked on, you entered a kind of botanical garden with an iron staircase. The higher you came, the more birds you met. Those were living freely on the first floor, slowly covering all the objects with their excrements. At this first floor one found a kind of showroom, similar tot Henry Moore’s showroom, where he received collectors. This doesn’t mean that Panamarenko didn’t work there, which he did, especially on smaller things such as Archaepteryx (a walking bird, powered by solar cells), but the things he was working on were quickly hidden when there were visitors. Yet, apart from the things he was still working on, one could see scientific magazines and books, hundreds of videos, parts of unfinished machines, a reel of Kevlar, swallows’ nests from Borneo, dried insects, fossils, corals, a diving helmet, a stuffed hoatzin, solar cells, batteries, a marine aquarium, macaws and a prize-winning nightingale from Hong Kong.

The heterogeneous character of this place indeed might remind us of curiosity cabinets. However, as Thomas Kuhn has so eloquently suggested, the essence of such cabinets 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. Anyone approaching Panamarenko’s work in a similar manner will have the impression that he 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.

Panamarenko is no aimless autodidact, but a person who has studied all his life and 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 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 US 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 (2).

In 1967 Panamarenko constructed his first aeroplane, Das Flugzeug (The Aeroplane) which he still approached as a so-called ‘poetic object’: a long bicycle with two times three propeller blades. Not for a second it would have come to his mind to try to construct a real manpowered aeroplane. It wasn’t until 1968, when Joseph Beuys suggested exhibiting Das Flugzeug at the Academy in Dusseldorf, that Panamarenko realised that his passion for technique and science might be an acceptable subject for art (3). It was at this point that he decided to take literally Beuys’s plea to broaden art. Essentially, this plea was an attempt to ‘broaden’ art by not considering it a goal anymore. The new goal would be to create ‘social sculptures’, i.e. to develop an ecological awareness and to lead a politically and spiritually committed life.

Adapting this view to his personal needs, Panamarenko concluded him that any subject might be a suitable theme for a work of art. No one reading Lawrence Alloway’s description of the early days of British Pop will be able to miss the numerous similarities to the way Panamarenko spent the second half of the fifties. ‘We accepted the commercial culture as a fact’, writes Alloway. ‘We discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically (…): technical and technological innovations, new products, new materials, film, advertising, science fiction and pop music.' (4)

Panamarenko is by no means an admirer of pop music, yet he has always been involved with film, science fiction, science and technology. ‘When I was fourteen, in 1954’, he once told me, ‘there was a pin-up in Popular Mechanics or Electronics Illustrated who was holding a matchbox, and underneath it said: “This contains more information than the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica.” I am still looking for that little box. Underneath that, in the same magazine, which I still possess, was a picture of Boris Karloff and one of those robots with an antenna on its head.’ (5) According to Alloway, the picture of Robbie the robot was one of the most striking images of the iconic exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ (1956) (6).

In the late fifties Panamarenko studied electricity, mechanics, aerodynamics and the properties of matter in a library where he had found a shelf with a few scientific reference books. He often spent the afternoons at the cinema, where he saw such films as Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), with Hedy Lamarr, and the science-fiction classic War of the Worlds (1953), of which Panamarenko recalls:

                                                                                               It contained fine landscapes and tricks of exceptional beauty, with perfect little space ships, with strange shapes that had a certain magic, not like those insipid ships with twenty thousand pipes and eyes like you see in 2001: A Space Odyssey or in Star Wars, where spaceships always look like things that already exist. (7)

Even though Alloway writes that the first phase of British Pop Art was closely linked to the theme of ‘technology’, and even though critic David Sylvester has similarly claimed that Richard Hamilton’s interest in things technical, technological and modern goes further than the romantic fantasies of the Futurists, Alloway also concedes that Amédée Ozenfant’s, Sigfried Giedion’s and Lászlo Moholy-Nagy’s books were not so much ‘read’ as ‘looked at’. (8) One could argue that in taking every image seriously, artists such as Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi were trying to ‘broaden’ art, but in the end their interest remained limited to iconography.

The greatest difference between Panamarenko and the artists associated with the Independent Group is that Panamarenko did not consider science, industry, science fiction and film as potential suppliers of new images, but as disciplines that might lead to new forms of beauty. One might say that here were two contradictory concepts of art. Since his participation in Beuys’s exhibition, in 1967, Panamarenko has considered art as being open to what is new, unexpected and unknown, as something that overcomes fear, in its search for magic, wonder and poetry. But for him all too often the opposite occurs: art functions instead as a calming ritual, so that fear is not overcome, but suppressed, disguised and reinforced. As a result, art repeats itself and rarely really surprises us with a new form of poetry.

Panamarenko’s works can be seen as the leftovers of his attempt of trying to experience something new for himself. ‘As for my teacher of natural sciences,’ the Italian writer Primo Levi once said, ‘chemistry was a textbook, and that’s it. It was pages in a book. She had never in her life touched a crystal or a solution. It was knowledge transmitted from teacher to teacher without ever a practical test.’ (9) At first, it might be difficult to understand why Panamarenko has spent the larger part of his working life constructing aeroplanes that cannot fly. But building a plane that flies is not interesting. The interesting part of it all is trying to find out why something doesn’t function if you try to make it work in an alternative, illogical way. The knowledge you gather in such a way is never second-hand knowledge, but knowledge that is based on true experience. ‘As a rule,’ the Belgian philosopher Leopold Flam wrote, ‘we experience what is generally valid, and apply it in various circumstances. What is extraordinary and new usually goes unnoticed, though it is precisely here that experience lies.’ (10)

The best example of this is probably the engine-driven rucksack plane Hareback on which Panamarenko worked between 1992 and 1998. (The rucksack-planes are carried on the back and thrust air to the ground, propelling you for enough seconds to jump over a brook.) The starting point of Hareback was an engine cut out of a Suzuki motorbike. As such, this engine was perfectly usable. However, Panamarenko turned it upside down for aesthetic reasons, with the result that the spark drowned. From that moment on Panamarenko tried to understand why it would be impossible to prevent the spark from drowning, inventing new systems of ignition or applying techniques that would seem inappropriate in logical terms.

The first time I interviewed Panamarenko, in 1988, he told me that it was easy to invent a perpetual motion machine, but almost impossible to prove it wrong. Nevertheless, a large part of his oeuvre consists of variations on a principle of perpetual motion called The Closed System Theory. This theory first appeared in his work in 1968 and has since taken various shapes and forms. Panamarenko started from the principle that it had to be possible to build machines that, with an equal supply of energy, could generate increasing power through acceleration.

The Closed System Theory was first applied to the solar-powered spaceship General Spinaxis (1968), to Closed System Power (1969) and when building the Accelerators (1969–70). Panamarenko assumed that the impulse that sets a body in motion gets split into two separate reactionary forces. Whilst one of these forces would ensure forward motion, the other would maintain rotation. He concluded that since this second force was not actually involved in stabilising forward motion, it could be used to propel a spaceship. ‘It is theoretically possible,’ he wrote, ‘to accelerate a body by giving it a push somewhere outside its centre of gravity so that it starts rotating spontaneously. The result is a recuperating object that can repeatedly be accelerated in a closed machine.’ How this would happen is not very clear, nor is it really explained. The balsa model of General Spinaxis looks great, but apart from the fact that it would be propelled by the Closed System Theory, nothing is really explained. This explanation came in the nineties, with Toy Model of Space. This model is based on the idea that the speed of spinning objects (such as planets) pulls themselves into an orbit due to a relativistic effect, causing one side to turn faster than the other.

His most important aeroplane, Umbilly II (1976–77), is also based on the same principle, namely that a manpowered flying wheel could set off a pair of wings that, bounced back by a spring, would gain an equal supply of energy through this spring, thus doubling the energy produced by the pilot. In fact, the most important part of this aeroplane is this spring, the aeroplane is just a pedestal to carry the propelling system. It looks nice though. It’s transparent like a cockpit, it’s painted in kitchen green and it contains a little blue seat such as the little blue seat his father installed on a tandem bicycle to travel to France when Panamarenko was a small boy.

Usually inventors of such theories dare people to prove them wrong. In Panamarenko’s case, however, he has time and again tried to prove himself wrong. While doing so, he has gathered more knowledge based on experience than most people will ever do.

This explains why numerous of his drawings are so detailed. All his machines are dysfunctional, but only for aesthetical reasons or because Panamarenko wants to find a new way to make something work. The dysfunctional nature of the machines doesn’t exclude an enormous amount of study and real attempts to make things really work. Detailed drawings often were primordial. The manpowered planes, the Pastille Engines, the Rucksack Planes and the Flying Car K2 have all been built to function, but they always contain jokes or other impossible elements that make the adventure impossible from the beginning. For instance, the rubber car Polistes has no brakes, the Flying car K2 has no steering mechanism (you steer through leaning over with your body) and the Rucksack Planes are steered by holding your hands in the 700 degrees hot air stream. Next to the technical drawings, which contain real calculations, one also finds more poetic ones, very often produced afterwards, to illustrate the function of the machine.

In 2005, filmed by a television crew during the opening of a retrospective show in Brussels, Panamarenko declared taking his retirement. Since that moment, many people have asked me whether this was really the case. Hardly anybody seems to grasp the possibility that an artist stops creating. Nevertheless, it is a fact. Apart from two small walking chickens, the model of a winged monument and a funny two-seated floating device with pedals, the artist has stopped creating art works. ‘You’re trying to get me at work again,’ he wrote to me in 2012, ‘but it won’t work. Together with the Big Lebowski I’m trying to win the world contest of laziness.’ And thus, having moved to the countryside, surrounded by his animals, he is going for his greatest achievement: to stop working completely, and, quite simply, to live.

Montagne de Miel, March 21st 2014

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

(2) See Tim Birkhead, The Wisdom of Birds, Bloomsbury, 2008.

(3) 'Panamarenko’, Staatliche Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf, 16 May 1968 – 30 June 1968, curated by Joseph Beuys.

(4) Lawrence Alloway, The Development of British Pop, in Lucy Lippard (ed.), Pop Art, London: Thames and Hudson, 1966, p. 32.

(5) Knockando! Panamarenko interviewed by Hans Theys. In: Nous Magazine, 28 November 1988, p. 6. Republished in French in: Michel Baudson (Ed.), Panamarenko, Flammarion, Paris, 1995, p. 185.

(6) ‘This Is Tomorrow’, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, August 1956, facilitated by curator Bryan Robertson.

(7) Hans Theys, Ping le sous-marin. Entretiens avec Panamarenko. In: Panamarenko, La Grande exposition des soucoupes volantes, Paris: Fondation Cartier, 1998, p. 59.

(8) Lawrence Alloway, The Development of British Pop, in Lucy Lippard (ed.), Pop Art, London: Thames and Hudson, 1966, p. 32.

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

(10) Leopold Flam, Liber Amicorum, VUB Press, Brussels, p. 347.