All aboard for a flight of fancy The Belgian sculptor-engineer Panamarenko is a poet and a dreamer. But are his rickety flying machines and ironic inventions visionary art or just kids' stuff?
Flight has, since we crawled out of caves, been one of man's most abiding fantasies. The image of Icarus falling from the sky, after his father, Daedalus's D-I-Y disaster, has fascinated artists and writers from Bruegel the Elder to W.H. Auden. Leonardo da Vinci was intrigued with the mechanics of aviation. As both an artist and inventor, he was, no doubt, as much attracted to the metaphorical implications of flight, as he was with sorting out the mechanics. The desire for weightlessness, to soar free unbounded by the earth's gravitational pull, is atavistic. Dreams of flying are, as we all know, extremely common.
The Belgium artist, Panamarenko, is a man with a life-long obsession with flight. Like the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, he has, from the first, adopted a pseudonym to hide from the public gaze. It is not apparent why. But in Pessoa's case it enabled him to live out a creative and emotional Jekyll and Hyde existence, to strive for psychological consolidation and completeness. No one seems sure of the genesis of Panamarenko's name. It's been suggested it's a reference to the now defunct Pan Am Airways, and that the Russian-sounding suffix is a whimsical take on the cold war that was at its height when he emerged onto the Antwerp art scene in the 1960s. Panamarenko is the Walter Mity of the art world, a utopian dreamer, an 'artist-technologist' who has spent thirty years constructing Heath Robinson contraptions from an assortment of bicycle peddles, sprockets, rubber bands, wheels, balsa wood (the stuff small boys use to build model aeroplanes) and thingamajigs. What's more, he believes he can make them fly. Looking at some of his machines I was reminded of those go-carts kids used to drag around the streets made from old pram chassises - bound with tape and string - before the emergence of skateboards. Peter Pan, you will remember, also had a thing about flying. And he never wanted to grow up.
In the 60s, Antwerp, like Amsterdam, was a haven for alternative life-styles: American draft-dodgers, hippie dropouts, drifters, would-be artists and poets. It was during this period of social flux that Anny De Decker and the young German artist, Bernd Lohaus - a student and friend of Joseph Beuys - opened the doors of their new Wide White Space Gallery with an evening of 'Happenings'. This included Panamarenko who had recently graduated from Antwerp's Royal Academy. Within a year the gallery was showing a heady mix of avant-garde artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Beuys, Fontana and Manzoni. Suspicious of the slick reductivism of much conceptualism, these young artists wanted to create a more fluid art that was open to new inclusive forms and ideas, one that was concerned with deeper issues than mere style. It was in this atmosphere of artistic licence that Panamarenko flourished. Like Beuys, he had always been interested in the natural sciences. Though while the mystical and the Gnostic were, with his predilection towards romanticism, to seduce Beuys, Panamarenko claims he remained closer to the tradition of hard science. Yet both men shared a common desire to expand the definition of what could constitute a work of art. For each had begun to see the limitations of an art that had been split off from science where the rigours of Descartian methodology had become more concerned with the mechanistic 'hows', than the metaphysical 'whys'. In this sense Panamarenko is a very European artist, standing apart from the macho heroics of American Expressionism and pop culture that dominated at the time.
At the 1968 Dussoldorf exhibition his Das Flugzeug - a phantasmagoric pedal-powered helicopter-cum-aeroplane, made from racing-bike parts, rubber driving belts, Styropor wings and occupying a space of 16 by 7 meters - formed the central focus of the show. Its zany inventiveness was to set the tone for Panamarenko's later work: flying saucers, gismos with propellers that can be strapped to the human body and Meganeudons - small flying machines that replicate the wing beats of insects. Panamarenko sets great store by the notion of 'invention'. The word, for him, resonates with ideas of adventure and discovery. He eschews the prosaic and actual in preference for the 'hardly probable' or 'merely possible'. As with Voltaire's God, because his artefacts did not already exist, he needed to invent them. His work is, as much as anything, about an act of faith. But a faith in what is not always clear. A clue might found, whatever his claims about 'real' science, in a work made in 1970, entitled The Teachings of Don Juan, based on the utterances of that peyote drinking hippie guru, Carlos Casteneda. Casteneda, and his shamanistic hero Don Juan were, of course, committed to a voyage of mood enhancement and to fantastic transports of transcendental delight.
Panamarenko has created his own bizarre version of the Theory of Relativity Toymodel of Space (A Mechanical Model Behind Quantum Mechanics), 1992. "In the art world," he says, "nobody understands it. In the world of science everybody thinks it is silly, even before they read it." Looking at his Aeromodeller, 1969-71 - a huge rattan, picnic-basket-of-a-contraption held together with ropy looking bolts and suspended beneath a large hot-air balloon - one is inclined to believe that this man is more Jules Verne than a latter-day Einstein. The limp, woolly space suits lying on the floor of the craft seem like something from a child's fancy dress box rather than equipment that would prevent oxygen starvation and weightlessness. Panamarenko also does a good line in ironic Ruritanian peaked caps. Kepi, 1997, an army hat topped with a fish, is 'designed to withstand environmental conditions and people'.
So should we be flocking to see the work of this obscure 60s throwback? And is what Panamarenko makes even art? Well yes. For however Boys Own some of it may appear, there is something rather touching about the obsessive enterprise of this mad visionary and dreamer, this poet-inventor. For unlike so much art that was made during the last years of the 20th century, and will presumably go on being made well into the 21st, this has nothing to do with either the market, money, investment or exchange or even with notions of celebrity. There is no material gain to be had from this work. It is simply the culmination of one man's dreams and reveries. A mad utopian bid for some sort of transcendence. Like Carlos Casteneda, Timothy Leary, R.D.Laing, love-ins, and hippie bells it all seems to belong to another, more innocent age. Yet I can't help but feel, that in this mitigated, self-promoting world, we need all the visionaries and dreamers we can get.
Panamarenko at the Hayward Gallery from 10 February to 2 April 2000