Today’s domestic chickens are genetically altered far from their original ancestors. With the release of documentaries like the 2006 Fast Food Nation and 2008 Food, Inc., the poultry industry has come under harsh scrutiny in recent years, as the grotesque conditions in chicken farms across the country have been brought to light. Though this has been a hot topic in the media and popular culture, the art world has largely overlooked the subject of genetically modified food. In his new show Leaving Paradise, Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen brings the ethical issues of factory farming into the space of the gallery. The show, currently on view at the CONNERSMITH Gallery in Washington D.C., features work from his so-called Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, including sculpture, photography, videos and live chickens in cages.
Upon entering the gallery, I was greeted by the squawking of the birds. In the back of the first gallery, a large wooden cage houses two Red Jungle Fowl chickens, a male and female, and their new offspring. Vanmechelen’s ongoing Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, which he began in 1999, involves interbreeding chickens from different countries in an effort to create “a true cosmopolitan chicken as a symbol for global diversity.” A giant family tree of this breeding experiment spans a wall in the second gallery of the exhibition. He uses the Red Jungle Fowl because it is the ancestor of all modern chickens. In breeding the chickens he seeks to bring them back to their original state of existence, one that is much more healthy and natural than those found in modern poultry processing plants.
Vanmechelen’s work reaches beyond the gallery and involves scientists, scholars, a think tank founded by the artist, and eight farms around the world. Yet the works of art stand alone and provoke the same questions that have driven Vanmechelen’s research for years. Beautiful silhouette photographs on glossy plexiglas adorn the walls, and taxidermied chickens stand elegantly on pedestals. The first piece in the gallery is the 2011 sculpture Symbiosis, a striking bust of half human head, half chicken that underscores Vanmechelen’s understanding of the chicken project as a metaphor for biodiversity and the interrelation of distinct species. Symbiosis also speaks to the human role in genetically modifying these birds into creatures that only vaguely resemble their forebearers. While Vanmechelen’s artistic practice may be unusual, it is also effective; the show had me rethinking the chicken sandwich I had eaten for lunch and wondering how such a banal part of our lives and diets could have me questioning international issues of globalization, diversity, and evolution.
Koen Vanmechelen: Leaving Paradise, is on view at CONNERSMITH Gallery through June 29, 2013.