"This is not a chicken, it is absolutely a piece of art." This is the announcement with which Koen Vanmechelen, conceptual artist and chicken breeder, begins a TEDx talk. He repeats it to me word for word in the chambers of the Crypt Gallery, deep beneath London's St Pancras Church, where we stand before a giant photographic print of a chicken.
"What makes this art?" I ask him. He points to the metal ring around the bird's leg. "That," he explains. "Man's intervention." The chicken before me is not just any chicken; it is a 17th generation, "cosmopolitan" chicken, one of the hundreds Vanmechelen has been breeding over the last 20 years in The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. It contains a combination of DNA from chickens across the globe; it is unique, and of current scientific interest.
The exhibition Darwin's Dream, running at the Crypt Gallery till mid December, is the latest instalment of his lifelong project. Koen has brought life, art, and science together within the caverns: work includes a living jungle, giant prints, abstract sculptures, and ranks and ranks of taxidermy. It is an artistic documentation of a scientific process.
Turn one corner and you are confronted by a giant hand clutching a chick, around another the neon sign "De-Domestication" illuminates the brick walls, and in another rows of stuffed chickens stare blankly back. In a final chamber you are faced with a video of the artist devouring chicken, unapologetically.
Look closely at every picture, or chicken, and you will see, as Vanmechelen points out, a numbered ring. Each chicken within the project has been bred, sequenced, tagged and recorded. Within all there is a scientific method.
Vanmechelen has on his side the Belgian geneticist Jean-Jacques Cassiman. Cassiman's work at the Human Genetics Centre at the University of Leuven focuses on genetic diversity and DNA polymorphisms: variations within our DNA that lead to new characteristics, an idea central to Vanmechelen's work.
Whilst most breeders are trying to selectively breed chickens with a limited gene pool, Vanmechelen is doing the opposite. Starting with the cross-breeding of two purebred chickens (Mechelse Koekoek and Bresse), subsequent generations have been further bred with chickens sourced from across the globe—they contain "cosmopolitan genetic material." The resulting chickens with an abnormally wide gene pool are "super bastards." These are the opposite of pedigrees and they are sweeping the board with their genetic advantages.
He explains to me how he has proved, by DNA sequencing the 18th generation, that increased genetic diversity of the chickens has led to "an increased fertility and immunity three times greater than commonly bred chickens." It is an important find, when the selective breeding and domestication of chickens has left them vulnerable to diseases that could wipe out whole populations. Vanmechelen is in consultation with chicken breeders around the world proposing alternatives. "Every organism is looking for another organism to survive, and the same applies to man and chicken," he says.
The chickens are also an important metaphor. "I create a frame around a living object; the chickens are emblematic of civilisation as a whole," he explains. His work illustrates how evolution of our own species through increased migration could in turn result in an increasingly cosmopolitan and resilient human genome.
The resulting chickens with an abnormally wide gene pool are "super bastards"
Vanmechelen's work is representative of the importance of genetic diversity, and provides an image that can be communicated globally. Collaborations between art and science may lead to interesting works of art, and Vanmechelen's work proves they can also have their practical use. He is able to produce breeding programs that may not be possible in a world where scientific experiments are subject to funding issues, justification, and rigorous methodology, all of which can all slow the experimental process. Artistic licence allows a creative and logistical freedom.
In 2016, Vanmechelen will open La Biomista, an art studio and science lab in Genk, Belgium. It will be an embodiment of what he calls the "Cosmopolitan Renaissance." It will not be art and science together in a traditional sense, he explains, but instead a "coming together of passions." It will be "the crossing point of the idea and desire of an artist with the research of the scientist, pushing work forward, creating a new evolution in knowledge."
Koen Vanmechelen, Darwin's Dream is at The Crypt Gallery, St Pancras Church, 15 November - 14 December 2014