Dreams of flight -- the longing to escape the bounds of gravity, both physically and metaphorically -- have inspired artists, musicians and writers for centuries. For over 30 years, these same dreams have propelled the work of the Belgian artist Panamarenko, who creates machines for looking at the world from new angles -- sometimes from the skies, sometimes skimming across the tops of waves, occasionally even under water. A selection of Panamarenko's idiosyncratic work has been assembled in a show at London's Hayward Gallery until April 2. The show then moves to the Museum Jean Tinguely in Basel from May 17 to Oct. 22.
Panamarenko, a nom de brosse devised in 1962, is a man obsessed with flight. He calls himself an artist-technologist, which neatly captures the strange world he inhabits between apparently opposing cultures. Born in Antwerp, he came to prominence in the 1960s along with contemporary northern European artists Joseph Beuys and fellow countryman Marcel Broodthaers. All three rejected the pop-orientated art fashionable during the period and focused on the real world, predominantly the world of science. His experience of art college led Panamarenko to the belief that "Painting is such a boring thing if you are a young person. You do it 10 times and if you are even a tiny bit alive you know that the rest of the world is far more fantastic than a painted imitation of it."
He has never explained his choice of working name, though the association with the former American airline, Pan-American, the central American country together with the tacking-on of the Russian-sounding suffix suggests that internationalism, or at least non-specific nationality, was the intention. After leaving art college, Panamarenko initially worked as a performance artist, organizing "happenings" on the streets and in the galleries of Antwerp.
Panamarenko's works cross back and forth between art and science. They have their own vocabulary, somewhere between aesthetics and engineering. They look intriguing and beautiful, but also have real working motors and mechanical parts. The wonder of Panamarenko's machines is that he is convinced that they could actually work if put to use. His personal flying machines, for example, are intended to take the wearer skimming over forests or across mountain ranges. 'Ping', a 2.5-ton submarine, is supposed to be carried into space by another device, 'Bing of the Ferro Lusto', an exuberant child's image of a flying saucer, "in order to search for water on distant planets." His biggest creation, the 'Aeromodeller', an 800-cu m pupa-like opaque balloon which occupies a whole gallery in the exhibition, is given forward momentum of up to 20 km/h by four lawn-mower engines and is intended to lift a woven rattan basket. It was designed as "a flying house to impress Brigitte Bardot."
There is a childlike quality to many of Panamarenko's contraptions. Sometimes they look as if they could have come out of the early days of aviation. 'Flugzeug', dating from 1968, evokes the string and paper efforts of 19th century would-be aviators, with a bicycle at its center and flimsy canvas wings. Sometimes the creations look like comic book illustrations. 'K3 Jungle Flyer', made out of Kevlar with a 250-cc motor driving four fans, could easily have debuted in a futuristic silent movie. And some of the machines look downright lethal. When he tested the 'Hazerug', a rucksack-type personalized flying machine with a 250- cc, 60-hp single cylinder motor encased in Kevlar, it made so much noise he recalls, "All the people who were with me in the laboratory got scared and ran away and pretty soon, because of the pressure of the huge centrifugal forces on the propeller, the entire thing exploded."
One of the exhibits is an hour-long video of Panamarenko presenting his scientific theories. As he talks his audience through the equations scribbled on a blackboard, he demonstrates a cavalier attitude toward the laws of physics by multiplying a string of letters and numbers by "10,000 or by Newton -- but you don't have to. It's not important."
Unleashing the imagination is the most important function of Panamarenko's work. His 'Kepi', a "hat to withstand environmental conditions and people," was inspired by a hat in an Antwerp shop window. To demonstrate the waterproof qualities of the headgear the shopkeeper had filled the crown with water and put a couple of fish to swim round in it. It doesn't matter a jot that Panamarenko's machines will never take off. The fact that this artist-engineer has created them at all -- in defiance of the laws of physics and the laws of artistic convention -- is a testament to the singularity of his obsessive dreams. And everyone needs dreams.