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 (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 - 1989 - KNOCKANDO! [EN, interview],
Interview , 12 p.



Hans Theys




Conversation with Panamarenko


Quantum mechanics and poetry, niels bohr and intelligent mice

- When we last spoke, you asked me to return with a tape recorder, because it would make you feel as though you were speaking to the world, which was a good enough reason for talking to me.

PANAMARENKO (b. 1940): Correct.

- I was reading a book by Stephen Hawking yesterday, a scientist who tries to reconcile quantum mechanics with the theory of relativity.

PANAMARENKO: It’s been tried by so many people. Einstein rejected quantum theory, on the grounds that it was based on something incomprehensible, a mystery that cannot be communicated with any clarity. Nobody understands quantum theory. It certainly works, but it is beyond all comprehension. And if you attempt to marry two completely unintelligible things, the end result is so theoretical as to be unreal. That’s why gabarites are used.

- What are gabarites?

PANAMARENKO: A gabarite is a fixed pattern that you follow to reach a solution, usually a random trajectory that happens to have a positive result. Then you always follow the same track, without actually knowing why. Mice are a good example. If you’re chasing a mouse – I’ve caught thirty-two of them since your last visit – they’ll scamper away in the blink of an eye and scurry into a hole. They do this automatically, without thinking.

- A beautiful metaphor for science.

PANAMARENKO: Yes, but there are many other examples. Take, for instance, superconductivity: it was a step-by-step process. First, there was someone working on liquid helium who accidently discovered that certain materials, such as aluminium and lead, seemed to lose their electrical resistance when cooled to a temperature approaching absolute zero. His name was Kamerlingh Onnes, a Dutchman. Because it seemed to be a perpetuum mobile, he didn’t dare announce his results for two years. He wanted to use the knowledge to make large, powerful magnets. This failed, however, because the magnetic field immediately broke the superconductivity due to the magnetic lines.

Thirty years later, someone else comes along who wraps impure niobium wire around a coil. It had been done a thousand times before, only with pure niobium. And it worked with the impure wire, because the contaminants in the metal retained those magnetic field lines. But because of the need for liquid helium, it was still a dead end.

A theory was developed to explain this kind of superconductivity (which won the Nobel Prize): the Cooper pairs. Because electrons are paired, they can move simultaneously, even when relatively far apart. It’s very complicated… But it still only worked at 20 degrees Kelvin (-253 °C) and also required liquid helium.

Fifty years later, so just a few years ago really, they discovered ceramics that could conduct at 150 degrees Kelvin (-123 °C) and which no longer operated according to the Cooper theory (even so, he still received his Nobel Prize). Nobody knows how it works and it was discovered by accident.

Oh well, perhaps it’s unfair to call it a chance discovery, because they were working on the question, but it’s true to say that it didn’t originate from a hypothesis (unlike the theory of relativity), which puts it on a par with quantum theory. In the case of the latter, they found a perpetually recurring factor that, when utilised, confirmed everything. But you don’t need me to tell you all this, of course, as there are plenty of books. Your article will be too long, so…

- When scientists grapple with issues that are so incomprehensible and abstract, they seem to be straying into your terrain. That’s why I sent you that article with a quote from Niels Bohr, who believes that scientists reach a point where they are simply dealing with poetry and images.

PANAMARENKO: Yes, but usually things are presented differently (in science and in art) so that they appear much more definite. Books by art critics or scientists are far too absolute in the way they present things. Quantum mechanics is never represented as if it were a poem, that’s an anathema to scientists. Niels Bohr might have said that, but he didn’t mean it. Of course, if I can try to explain something about the universe at some opening or other, when I’m not that lucid anymore, then so can anyone else, even though he or she might never have previously harboured such ideas. In order to avoid such equivalences, science becomes institutionalised, so that it becomes a vast mountain of bureaucracy.

- There is, of course, a difference between speaking to outsiders and speaking to university students, who mustn’t doubt that their studies and research will lead to something concrete. The history of science is also falsified for educational reasons.

PANAMARENKO: Yes. They always create the impression that a theory is the result of one person’s work. Einstein is a good example. Most of the books about Einstein omit the names of the other scientists who laid the groundwork, such as Hendrik Lorentz and George FitzGerald, who collated the mathematics. Simple mathematics can be brought into general relativity, via the black hole (which is what Hawking is talking about), so that it becomes real. There are people who still…

I spent three months with someone from MIT, scribbling and swearing, not because I necessarily had to be right, but because I didn’t understand why his mistakes were bigger than mine. Not to mention the institutional errors and an arrogance that beggars belief. Of course, it makes a huge difference whether you hail from such an institution or are sitting here, amongst the parrots. People like that can treat you as though you were some kind of inventor of a perpetuum mobile.

This man, his name was Lewin, considered a rotating object, then withdrew from it and described what it did, while I considered that rotating object as it withdrew from me. It was all the same to him whereas they are completely different things when it comes to special relativity. The majority of scientists still struggle with the paradox of relativity. They never progress past the student stage. Of course, they don’t think that it really matters whether or not they can actually understand relativity. They acquire their degree and can work in a factory or teach in a school, where they will regurgitate their half-baked information.

However flawed an approach, complete proficiency in just half or a tenth of the theory is far preferable to knowing one hundred percent by heart, like that clerk from MIT. He actually said that it doesn’t matter in which direction something moves because it’s pure mathematics and not a reality. To make relativity work, you have to find a point in the universe with either an absolute speed or absolute stasis compared to the expanding universe, the planets and galaxies. If you don’t find that absolute point of motion, you don’t have any observation positions and might as well start peddling the same kind of claptrap as Lewin. I’m familiar with this creepy attitude that never offers peace or reality because I was always surrounded by these kinds of dubious figures when I used to prepare happenings in a pub called De Muze. Beauty: it always remained vague for them, it was just a word, something you just had to accomplish for the sake of the middle classes and the bourgeoisie. At the time, there were all these enthusiastic conversations: ‘Yes, and then we’re going to build an enormous delta-winged bomber plane, even bigger than an XB-70, constructed entirely from plywood, because that’s strong enough, and with six old Volkswagen engines screwed to the back, because then it won’t be so expensive since you can buy them for 2,000 francs each at a scrapyard…’ And the very next day, they’d be back making paintings so as to impress their parents and the director of the Academy. The non-stop lies and deception were, if the truth be told, utterly shameless. For making an XB-70 isn’t art, it’s more a kind of innate craziness. What you have to do is to fiddle around with all those historic drawings on a blank sheet and merge them into one. I did that myself and made beautiful collages to show that I could paint: with texts by Henry Miller and with images of pin-up girls, matchboxes, archaeopteryxes and robots.

When I was fourteen, we’re talking about 1954 now, Popular Mechanics or Electronics Illustrated printed a picture of a pin-up girl holding a matchbox. The caption read: ‘This little box contains more information than the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica.’ I’m still searching for that matchbox! (Laughs.) Underneath, in the same edition, which I still have, there was a robot with antennas on his head who propelled himself along with staccato movements. The floor had to be completely smooth, otherwise he’d tip over. These kinds of robots are still lurching around. It’s something that needs to be remedied. Why are they still trundling along in this stiff and jerky manner, or scooting around on wheels?

- That reminds me of your attempts to make a walking chicken.

PANAMARENKO: Twelve chickens. Archaeopteryxes.

- I thought you were going to make just one, on a column in a bat-filled cave in France…

PANAMARENKO: No, a dozen. Like a dozen eggs. If I have the electrical platinum, the circuit, then I’ll print it twelve times, but the chicken itself will improve or deteriorate with each new iteration. It all depends on whether or not the changes are genuine improvements. Regarding the chicken for France, which has to serve as a monument, it goes like this: ‘Give me a plinth and I’ll put a chicken on it’. It’s actually the chicken itself that counts, but given the fact that it’s a monument, it obviously has to perch on something. That chicken will be a little bigger than the others. A certain size, the scale that’s ‘just right’. That’s what creating is all about. It’s along the lines of: no, that’s too big, I would never make a chicken that big, I would prefer the size of a pigeon. When it’s bigger, the chicken becomes a kind of robot. (Looking over my shoulder.) There are still a few fat mice in the kitchen, I can see them from here.


Engines and narrow-spirited nonsense

PANAMARENKO: I’m working on an entire series of engines, new combinations…

- Like the ‘pastille engine’ for your machine for flying in the mountains?


- But perhaps you didn’t make it yourself?

Panamarenko: But of course I did. It resembles a round flat box, it’s actually an off-the-shelf pneumatic engine, but the proportions have been altered. There are just three components: loose rectangular bulkheads, an eccentrically positioned rotating middle unit (where the bulkheads slide in and out) and a round shell. You start the engine as you would a lawnmower, by pulling on a cord to trigger the rotor. This movement and the centrifugal force cause the plates to slide outwards against the walls of the casing, forming chambers which, due to the eccentric position of the middle rotor, first become larger, so that they suck air and fuel inwards, and then smaller, so that the mixture is compressed for ignition.

All those degrees of resistance, the heat, the expansion etcetera have to be calculated and before you know it, you’re working on something as complicated as the cutting-edge technology behind Concorde. But the engine is more or less finished now. It works to a degree, but it’s not perfect. I’ve started work on another one, this time made of plastic. I want to build a soft engine, something like an electric engine, but which still runs on fuel…

What do you mean by soft?

PANAMARENKO: Aeroplane turbines are rather similar, but they’re so huge that it’s hard to call them soft anymore. And if they’re small, they rotate so fast that they emit a loud screeching noise. But my soft engine… it’s a mechanism in a plastic biscuit box that can generate 50 HP, or at least if you spray enough benzine inside. It’s perfectly safe to hold, is totally reliable and a quiet source of energy, on a par with batteries or electric engines.

The problem with internal combustion engines is that they make too much noise, the problem with electric engines is that the batteries are too heavy. My engine comes in at five kilos, generates 50 HP, and is completely silent. The ‘pastille engine’ is already a giant step forwards, but it hasn’t broken new ground. It’s not a constant preoccupation, but I do get carried away with it from time to time, simply because I’m trying to learn everything that I can about basic engines.

If I can master this, then I can build another model, but in plastic, which can be filled with air. This can be generated externally using a turbine that fits into the palm of your hand: it’s completely unobtrusive. That tiny turbine drives the larger box, which expels air that feeds back into the turbine. Even if the yield is only 14%, it’s close to perfect. It’s half the weight of other engines, doesn’t overheat, is made of plastic and comes in at just five kilos.

- Very practical.

PANAMARENKO: Indeed. And you can carry it on your back to fly with.


Panamarenko: In all honesty, it’s not worth bothering about the art world. It’s a distraction that stops you from doing what you should be doing. After a few short years, you start to feel unhappy. This world of so-called real art, the profound Art of times past, is actually a very sad place. If you are pursuing your own adventures then you have reason to be optimistic, but don’t get involved in the art world: it’s so sad and disturbing.

I’m thinking back to when I planned happenings in De Muze with all those dodgy figures and their narrow-spirited nonsense. Nothing was ever learned, in fact, and the darkness never dissipated. The same applies to the teachers at the Academy. There was always this raucous screaming about everything being so fantastic, but the sentiment never outlasted the sound of the scream itself. It was never constructive. I fail to understand how someone who has discovered an artist he likes and is good, such as Duchamp or Picasso, I’m just plucking out names here, can continue to consort with the art muppets who work for Big Brother, or with museum directors, the latter of whom ultimately become the real politicians.

Try telling one of those piffling directors that one of his exhibitions looks like shit, and he will soon exert his mayoral authority. He will say that your criticism is tantamount to ingratitude, since he was the one who launched your career… In reality, it’s the other way around: I was a known figure while they were still toddling around in nappies.

Chambres d’amis. I thought it was nonsense back then and I still think it’s nonsense today. It had nothing to do with beauty and art. Rather, it was a social game that could have been dreamt up in a bar. I thought it was ludicrous, infiltrating all those people’s homes. Who are these people, what is this thing, actually, and what on earth is it doing here? They haven’t even purchased it yet. It was so irritating. I might try and design an engine or a chicken, but I certainly don’t think it’s a brilliant idea to place the chicken in a space like that and with total strangers.


The ‘almost nothing’ and painting.

PANAMARENKO: A collector might get off to a flying start or begin very badly but, either way, all he’ll end up with in old age is a collection of stupid and aesthetic works, which are almost completely empty.

A truly bad painting speaks volumes, it radiates its badness and ugliness. To avoid that trap, you can make something that is nothing at all, or ‘almost nothing’. I’m thinking about Richard Long, Daniel Buren and Sol LeWitt, even Didier Vermeiren or Jan Vercruysse, amongst others. They will gather ten twigs and arrange them in a circle on the wall, whereby everyone will exclaim: ‘beautiful, pure, wonderful’. And it is beautiful, that much is true, but it’s also totally inert. It’s both pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-elitist. And they think it expresses the meaning of life!

And then there are the paintings. All ready-mades. You can throw a splash of paint onto a canvas, paint a figure or execute a composition, but in the end it’s all just abstract colour variations that can be traced back to Buren’s stripes.

When we first saw Buren’s stripes, say in the middle of an art fair, it was breath-taking. But ten years later and it’s even more suffocating than all the rest of the junk, because it’s lost its rebellious streak. It’s done a volte-face and become a kind of imperialist symbol, one that is backed up by almost identical linguistics. I haven’t a clue what it has to do with beauty. And there’s never a joke. Buren is devoid of humour… His work has changed somewhat over the years, but it is the product of a very narrow life, completely lacking in observation…

Something is beautiful if it amuses me. If you are able to focus on something and still feel alive, that’s akin to beauty. It’s not confined to artists, it also applies to mechanics, scientists, scuba divers or the like, except they will never talk about it in quite the same terms, because they see things from a technical perspective.

On the other hand, most artists are only technicians. It’s a technical form of training: you go to the academy and you make paintings. You realise that you can do it, you can already imitate a Picasso, then you try an abstract monochrome work (because it will probably turn out alright), a slashed canvas or a copper plate riddled with bullet holes. But once you’ve graduated, you ought to be able to tackle the highest: ordinary things that carry beauty in themselves.

Everybody limits themselves to the same irrelevant kind of beauty… One of the most punitive horrors of the art world is this status quo. The art world is like a pyramid. There are a few ‘big names’ jumping around at the top, but nothing ever really changes. Given how seriously people look at Haring’s paintings, it would be ridiculous to claim that Duchamp has had an impact. And at the base of the pyramid are the hundreds of galleries that support young kids who stopped learning at fourteen rather than twenty-four. The ‘big names’ certainly do something, they create an opening, but that entrance point is immediately bricked up again. Has science ever limited itself to a single theme? No, right? So why art?

- Does not every medium have its limitations, and is it not the maximum evolution – within those limitations – that comprises the essence of art? I know that art, for you, has to be groundbreaking.

PANAMARENKO: Look, a painter gets tired of always painting the same thing, so he moves on and paints something else. Instead of squares, he might start painting parrots (he’s fascinated by birds, especially blue parrots), but he immediately reduces them to squares, to create an effect. He isn’t going to become an art-ornithologist who will explain the beauty of these birds and what he has learned about them. He will prove, both to you and to me, that his paintings are endlessly varied – just look! – now he’s painted a parrot, and then there was the train and don’t forget the squares. In reality, it’s all the same. This is because both monochrome and figurative works communicate the same kind of beauty (if it exists in the first place, that is to say, if the painting is successful).

If Broodthaers is good, then it isn’t because of the mussel or that egg, but because of the atmosphere, an atmosphere that is unlike that of paintings because a step has been taken towards something that cannot be painted. Look, there’s very little point in painting a computer. Conclusion: computers are ridiculous because you can’t paint them. But if you’re interested in the components of a computer, then you can see that there’s something more to them. I’m not talking about selling the gadgets or how they are ultimately used (to make coat racks or to force people to toil away in ghastly conditions), but their inner workings represent the solution of all the great riddles about the possibilities of electricity. There’s something inside them that you can’t paint, that’s what I’m getting at.

People buy something to hang on their walls and they call it art, just as they call a chair a chair.

- And just as the computer might radiate a certain poetry…

PANAMARENKO: You can tickle it out, you can extract it.

- Don’t you consider painting, unjustly, as a form that has to express something that lies outside of itself? Just like a parrot, a painting also has an interior. It creates its own poetry within the possibilities of its form.

PANAMARENKO: Of course, but the terrible thing is that all visual art is reduced to those few forms that are recognised as art or as being beautiful. And if art wants to play the important role that it so richly deserves, it cannot be limited to theatre, ballet, opera or painting. Painting is discussed as though it is something absolute, whereas it’s just one discipline within millions of other possibilities that we shouldn’t refer to as opera, ballet, theatre or cinema, because that’s what tips you over into the same pattern. That’s why you get these peculiar repetition effects. Ballet is actually a peculiar repetition effect. Protocol.

There are artists who, every time they make something, think about their work, really think, and think deeply, so you feel it. You can show them your work and ask them how it makes them feel. You make sure that he or she gets to see your work, because you know that his or her opinion counts, because people like that don’t believe in dogmas and are not officials (who only pretend to have an inkling about art).

I’ve met two artists who genuinely did think: Beuys and Broodthaers. Beuys talked about art in the broadest sense, in the expanded sense. Art as something overarching… If your work has that overarching quality, then it is alive. Otherwise it’s a load of bullshit, pure bullshit. It’s hard to draw up a list of things that you’d call exceptionally good, it’s always the same… fake. Made to sit in a museum.

I’ve nothing against exhibiting in museums, but you mustn’t make things just for the occasion, and you certainly shouldn’t make things simply to place in a living room, because then it really does become the chair we just mentioned. If your objects assume an existing form, there’s nothing more to learn. You no longer want to discover something about a different material and your work becomes copying. A specialism.


Art and writing

- What do you think of the texts written about your work?

PANAMARENKO: They tend to be awful. The dogma stipulates that a text about a painting, regardless of the painting’s quality, must always have the same degree of solidity.

But if an author has to write about chickens and engines, he automatically ends up having fun. He wants to make it even funnier by talking about it humorously, so my work suddenly loses its depth. I only know two writers who can conquer the temptation. One lives in Switzerland and the other in Paris.

- Wim Van Mulders’ article in Artforum wasn’t in the least bit funny.

PANAMARENKO: Wim Van Mulders’ article was as unclear as it was confusing. But the other writers are even worse. It’s hard to find someone who can write about my work without it sounding banal.

Of course, the texts about other artists will also be superficial, or perhaps I should say even more superficial. Because what can you actually say about an abstract painting? Should you talk about ‘the strength of the colours’ and ‘the consummate finesse of the greys’, as per the Gazet van Antwerpen? Or do you have to use these solutions that were discovered just so you can bullshit about art using a certain terminology?

- It’s rather hard to do that with your work. Its essence, the disregard for the boundary between art and science, is of course very difficult to grasp.

PANAMARENKO: There’s no border whatsoever. There are only transitions.

- Like your soft engine? You set yourself a goal beforehand that would negate the meaning of your project if you actually took it seriously?

PANAMARENKO: That’s right, because otherwise you’re absolutely crushed if the stupid thing doesn’t work. But there have been many failed inventions for which the studies were more interesting than a successful end result, and which have cropped up later in one form or another… Apart from this, there is a pathology in each of us that dooms us to failure.


The relativistic rolling motion

- Isn’t there a similarity between the ambition to make a soft 50 HP engine that resembles a plastic biscuit box and the search for a general theory that reconciles quantum mechanics and relativity? In a way, such an objective is as utopian as your small and quiet engine. Or am I wrong? Are scientists like Hawking not working on something similar, even if they present it differently to their students?

Panamarenko: Yes, of course. That’s exactly what I mean. But this is why not all science is automatically beautiful or poetic. I’m not fond of hypotheses like string theories, because they seem too incomprehensible to be able to explain anything. They lack elegance. I find it very strange, with those magnetic strands. And it quickly becomes totally abstract. Ask a few questions and, before you know it, you’re scrabbling around in the dark.

To my mind, it’s not about whether the string theory is possible or not, it’s just not comprehensible enough to be elegant. Whereas my theory, however, is extremely elegant.

- Tell me…

PANAMARENKO: In my hypothesis, the theory of relativity is applied to an object that has two different speeds at the same time… This led to a theory that explains how an electron can have an independent and stable orbit. If electron orbits weren’t stable, they would collapse on the nucleus after one millionth of a second. Then the universe as we know it would disappear and there would only be a few ladle-sized balls floating around, which would be incredibly volatile and explode again within the next fraction of a second, only to implode once more. A hydrogen electron, however, moves in a fixed and stable orbit. Using the incomprehensible quantum theory, you can calculate why that orbit is stable, but because the quantum theory is so unintelligible you cannot understand why it is so. This is assuming it can be calculated in the first place, because the equations are mind-boggling.

One day, I said, well, well, well, what if that electron now rotates and one side rolls forward and the other side backwards? What if you wanted it to roll like a wheel down a street? If you imagine an electron rolling against space, then that electron has no speed on one side, namely where the wheel hits the floor, otherwise it would slide over the floor, while it rolls. Point by point it has no speed, while the other side of the electron has twice the speed of the general rolling motion. This would be completely meaningless if the theory couldn’t be proved. But it works out perfectly. And this is how you can calculate accurate electron diameters and an accurate Niels Bohr trajectory.

How would an object move that is constantly shorter on one side, because it advances faster at that point and thus becomes smaller due to the Lorentz transformation (mass increase, volume contraction and a deceleration of time)? What does that object have to do to compensate? Well, it’s very simple, it has to run in a circle, the gravity of which is self-created. I call this the relativistic rolling motion. All the debate about it is theoretical, but if you calculate it then it ends up to the tenth decimal point. Because electrons are so small, my theory seems fantastical, but there are very specific figures about hydrogen atoms that are calculated in different ways by people who know nothing about this kind of force. The basic postulate is that an object can catapult forwards and have two different speeds, one running in a different time dimension to the other.

As long as it’s elegant, I don’t mind whether my theory is right or wrong. Furthermore, it is not only true for electrons, but also for the orbit of the sun. Starting from its radius of gyration you can calculate the sun’s exact orbit, because one side is constantly moving faster than the other. The fast side of the sun is narrowed for thirteen days, increased in mass and slowed down, so that the sun draws itself into an orbit. At least, from the viewpoint of a spectator sitting on the North Pole of the Milky Way (as a kind of ideal observation point, from where one can witness the relativistic motion in an absolute motion and calculate absolute speeds). He will see the sun orbit around the Milky Way and can precisely calculate the two different speeds (although it is only a difference of 2 kilometres per second or so, but the orbit is immense).

The stars that do not directly heed this law of relativity, are still looking for a stable orbit and are in radial translation. In the middle, close to the core of the Milky Way, you find the stars that are old, that have stopped rotating around their own axis and, as a result, can no longer possess an orbit. They either fly out of the Milky Way or just hang there, until they are gradually drawn towards the central black hole and disappear.

I have developed a new formula for this, which is very simple and also reversible. Total reversibility…

- Which formula?

PANAMARENKO :                 C2                                   C = speed of light
                                               ____________                        w = f.p.2
                                             w2.R                          R = r


If you divide the total energy of the electron by the Planck constant, then you obtain the frequency of the electron (f), which is part of ?. For R you have to insert the Niels Bohr orbit which gives you the radius of the electron. That’s how it should work out, if I’m not mistaken.


The men from De Rode Hoed and W. van M., again

- The last time we spoke, I asked you if it made sense to create a magazine. You replied that I ought to produce six issues and then stop, just as you did with Happening News.

PANAMARENKO: Yes, otherwise it will be like Time or The Radio Times. For me, it was all over after six issues.

- Were you bored of it, or was it a tired formula?

Panamarenko: It was tired. I’m referring to the period when I was in De Muze, amongst all those obscure figures. I had an obscure friend, of course, and it seemed like a kind of competition to get along well with the men who frequented ‘De Rode Hoed’.

- Who were they?

PANAMARENKO: ‘De Rode Hoed’ (The Red Hat) was the restaurant where all the teachers went to eat mussels… In the long run, we made as much as possible to put in that magazine. That alone was bad enough. The print quality was so poor that we were ecstatic if you could see anything at all. But there was a kind of fatigue, which was compensated for by the act of just flinging something together. But then it’s falsified, and isn’t real anymore… Do you think Wim Van Mulders is a good writer, then?

- I’ve learned something from his essay at any rate.

PANAMARENKO: Yes, I wanted to say that a moment ago: things could always be worse. But his article is so unclear, it’s as if you always have to bullshit about art in a way that no one understands.

- I wonder why you call it unclear. How could his article have been clearer? Do you mean that the reader is unable to distinguish between what comes from him and what comes from you?

PANAMARENKO: No, I mean that it seems so unreal. You get the impression that Van Mulders’ appreciation for the work lasts as long as it takes him to write the article. Afterwards, he starts over with another artist. A few years later, he says about my work: ‘Ah yes, I haven’t been following it to the same extent’. I read that in the article, that’s what it actually says. It all sounds so forced, as though he doesn’t even believe it himself. But if you’re critical of that, then you should make the sign of the cross over Belgium, because there’s nobody here, unless I haven’t met them yet.

- So you expect greater enthusiasm and more consistency.

PANAMARENKO: Yes, and an end to the pretence that you like a certain work while you’re thinking of something else, which doesn’t come across as sincere.


Henry Miller

PANAMARENKO: Miller is excellent for people of a certain age, who come from a certain milieu. He breaks free. Other authors stick to literature. Maybe they’re much better writers, but at a certain point you need someone to say something different, and I think Miller was very important to me. I haven’t read any other books, he’s the only writer I know.

- What do you mean by breaking free? That he wrote about sex?

PANAMARENKO: No, certainly not, I didn’t need Miller for that. It was already 1956 or 1958. No, there were other things you could do in that respect. I’m referring to his ideas about society. And also to those enumerations… It was as if some of those things were written in a hallucinatory state and described a kind of universe that was filled with gods. A god of the hinge, the god of the door, the god of the threshold, Greek gods such as Zeus, crocodiles, trapezes, etc… But then he became a terrible piss-taker and wrote about what his experiences with these women and so on, things that don’t interest me. Even if my experiences were similar, I still wouldn’t find them interesting.

- I’ve long collected enumerations. I love their apparent arbitrariness and their ability to grasp or evoke something.

PANAMARENKO: From what I’m able to glean, I’ve come to realise that you can use such elaborations to accurately represent the climate of a city. New York, for example. Those tailors, those Jews, those Greeks, those Italians, that perennial juggling and hustling, that pacing back and forth, those clothes, those habits and those beliefs, that hysteria, it was all listed and in such a way that it almost emerged as a real object. That worked. Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer.

Without having been taught or encouraged to read a book in primary or secondary school, I read Miller’s works because I wanted to cut out some text and paste it into Happening News, since I wasn’t able to write anything of my own at that point. I then composed stories out of the cut-out words and sentences. Miller always adopted such an arrogant tone in the face of that fucking awful American society, although ours wasn’t much better. That granted a special kind of freedom, one that reduces the sense of anxiety.

I’ve also read books by technicians who were poets in the sense that Bohr intended. For example, the inventor of space travel, Hermann Oberth, who wrote a book about how to build a rocket, and this at a time when nothing like that even existed. When launched, the rocket’s metal casing naturally becomes red-hot, then white-hot and will eventually melt, so you need to use a special material. But none of this was necessary because, in his eyes, you could just make the fuselage out of copper (he wasn’t squeamish about things becoming too heavy). Yes, it would melt, but you’d place a bag of tin filaments inside, with a double wall, so that if you sprayed the fuel behind it and the temperature was too high, then the tin would melt away at the hottest points, thereby creating a burst of cold fuel. There was something peculiar about it, about being so fixated on one thing…


Museums, directors and hard-nosed commotion

PANAMARENKO: The accusation levelled against art is that it’s too emotional, but, as a matter of fact, that’s all there is to it. It’s nowadays done with better training and greater finesse, but people like Rudi Fuchs or Debbaut are worthless. They don’t even say that your work is oh so beautiful, they just don’t say anything anymore, they’re mere civil servants. Whether you find something good or exalted is purely a question of emotion. When you work on something to which you are emotionally attached, you look like a fool; but when you do it in a cool and calculated manner, like a kind of economist, then you have the aura of being a great intellectual. People like that always resort to a kind of sparse and dry aesthetics, or else to something from art history or an antiquarian bookshop.

- And Kasper König?

PANAMARENKO: A flimflam man who is incredibly opportunistic.

- What disappoints you so much is that they never really get involved and never stick to their guns.

PANAMARENKO: You mustn’t forget that Rudi, Kasper, Harald and Wim have been around a long time, yet have never been able to tell the good artists from the bad. Never. Museums used to refuse everything. Nothing came in, or Anthony Van Dyck at the very most, but now it is the other way around… In the Musée d’Art Moderne, in Paris, ten artists turn up to exhibit per month. Museum directors are always terribly busy.

If I always refer to Beuys and Broodthaers, it’s not just because their work made such an impression on me, but because their praise actually meant something. Such people are very rare. That’s why you get so annoyed with someone like Jan Hoet, who loves to wave his arms in the air, proclaim that he likes it so much and that he’s going to buy everything, but who can change his mind in the blink of an eye. Imagine there was a powerful text in your book, and I say: that’s a strong text. It should mean something, right? They, however, will tell you that it is a superb text and it will mean absolutely nothing.



- I would like to end this conversation with a special question. I recently met eleven-year-old Louis De Cordier from Schorisse, who wonders why flies never hit the windscreen of a moving car. Can you explain to him why there are never any dead flies stuck to the glass?

PANAMARENKO: A fly that’s inside the car? Because the car, as long as it travels at a uniform speed, has no movement in relation to the fly. But if the car stopped and were to suddenly accelerate, so that his father is thrust back in his seat, the fly would also hurtle backwards and be splattered against the glass. But his father would have to be driving a Ferrari or something…

- They drive a van…

PANAMARENKO: Well, there wouldn’t be anything to see with a mini-van, not unless it was a giant fly…


Montagne de Miel, 25 February 1989