Art Shorts: Chicken or the Egg?

Belgian Artist Koen Vanmechelen Sees Poultry in a New Light

The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project at Eastern Market’s Wasserman Projects in 2016 asked visitors to rethink the way they view art – and poultry – in an entirely new way.

The “Energy/Mass” exhibition was by far the largest scale for his 20-year-old project. Vanmechelen has garnered global attention for his artistic examination of themes on multiculturalism and bio-diversity, using chickens as his media of choice. He started first by mixing the Mechelse Koekoek, which is native to Belgium – with France’s national poultry – the Poulet De Bresse. Such a crossbreed was unheard of. After all, the coveted Bresse breed is legally defined as having been raised in the historic region of what was once known as the fertile eastern French region of Bresse.

From its once provincial beginnings, the Cosmopolitan chicken has gone on to be represented by 20 different countries – including in Germany, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, Russia, and Senegal. With each generation, his chickens have grown more spectacular in size and vitality. His works have gone from an artistic experiment on the strengths of multiculturalism and homogeneity, to become powerful symbols that tie together the threads of science, politics, philosophy, and identity.

“Bringing two identities together and looking at the outcome is setting something free,” Vanmechelen tells us of his project.

It’s no coincidence that the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project would find its way to Detroit. Vanmechelen tells us he met Gary Wasserman, a philanthropist, and collector several years ago when the Michigan-native initiated a visit to his studio in Belgian. And Vanmechelen visited Detroit long before buzz about the city’s revival started making headlines.

“I came to Detroit many years ago and saw that the city was on the edge of dying, but I also felt an inkling of hope, and the hope is that people will come together again,” says Vanmechelen.

Up until now, Vanmechelen’s chickens had roamed around on a farm near his home in Belgian. Now, with his Detroit exhibition, he would be ready to test out how his creation can serve as a means of addressing economic and food disparities in a city that has faced unprecedented urban decay.

In “Energy/Mass,” Venmechelen showcased a rooster of his 19th generation Mechelse Cemani, which is a mix of a Cosmopolitan Chicken Project Mechelse Sulmtaler and an Indonesian Ayam Cemani, in a floor-to-ceiling wired pen. In a neighboring pen, a flock of egg laying hens, American Wyandotte, were busy at work, which are native to the Great Lakes region. The two breeds would mate and, in a separate room, their offspring on display were huddled under a heat lamp.

The result is the Mechelse Wyandotte Chicken, which scientists who’ve worked with Venmechelen say, displays a remarkably higher genetic diversity than other chickens. In the latest evolution of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, Planetary Community Chickens, the poultry are in a position to provide nutritional value to a Detroit neighborhood that has long dealt with finding ways of bringing healthy food to members of the community.

Now in a century-old farmhouse at the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, the Mechelse Wyandotte hens produce eggs. Part of the home has been renovated for a farmhand to live in and to tend to the chickens in another part of the house, which has been retrofitted as an incubator and chicken coop.

The selection of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm came about as Venmechelen met the farm’s founders, a husband and wife team, William and Jerry Hebron, who have been operating the North End social enterprise since 2008. He wanted the chickens’ future home to fulfill a social need, and the Hebrons wanted to expand upon their offerings of farm-fresh produce to surrounding residents.

Oakland Avenue Urban Farm is among the 1,500 or so urban farms and gardens throughout the city that have repurposed vast vacant land into fertile crop fields. On top of serving as a place to source healthy food, the 5-acre space has also become a venue for artists to showcase their work.

Last year, the farm created a template to provide gallery space for artists who otherwise would not have the resources to have their work exhibited publicly. That pilot project is blossoming, thanks in part to a $500,000 grant from ArtPlace America, by redeveloping vacant property into a dining hall and hostel, creating the Art Farm House gallery space and community art school, and launching the North End Superette to sell the farm-fresh products.

“Our project is built around sustainability, it’s about more than just about growing food, it’s about cultivating food and culture,” says Hebron.