New York


Dia Center for the Arts

THE SINGLE MOST COMMON THEME in the critical literature on Panamarenko is his failure. This might seem strange, since the Belgian artist has had a long and fairly successful career (at least in Europe; this is his first major US exhibition). But the “f” word doesn't arise in discussions of his career—it relates to how his art objects function.

Panamarenko skirts a long tradition of Belgian invention: Attributed to his countrymen are innovations from French fries to modem plastics, from the saxophone to the internal combustion engine. But perhaps his true ancestor is an Italian: Like Leonardo da Vinci with his sepia-drawn flying machines, Panamarenko has spent decades devising contraptions for flying that appropriate natural elements, including the design of a bird's wing and the motions of insects in midair. And yet nobody calls Leonardo a failure. His drawings of helicopters, for instance, which predate the existence of airplanes by centuries, earn him visionary points for the mere conception of such objects. What makes Panamarenko different, of course, is his timing. When he started building his “projects” in the late '60s, real-life airplanes, zeppelins, blimps, gliders, even rockets were coursing through the atmosphere with varying degrees of success. His own flying machines have rarely left the ground. What does it mean, then, to work in theory (like Leonardo) in an age when flying machines actually exist and function, not just in theory, but in everyday life?

This show features two Panamarenko objects: Aeromodeller, 1969-71, a helium blimp (now filled with air) that the artist attempted to launch in Antwerp in June 1971, and Raven's Variable Matrix, 2000, a small solo flyer that crosses a glider with an ergonomic bike. Neither of Panamarenko's objects can actually fly, and today no one expects them to. Like those of his early associates, Marcel Broodthaers and Joseph Beuys, Panamarenko's works function differently in different settings: as performance objects (or, in the '60s, as the centerpieces of Happenings), performance relics, or simply sculpture. Here they function as both relics and sculpture; they sit quietly in Dia's annex, which itself resembles a hangar, where one can marvel at their design—the huge, translucent sac of Aeromodeller, a cocoon held together by strips and patches of clear plastic and attached with rope to a silver-painted wicker gondola (two asbestos suits are laid out inside), and the see-through body and wings of Matrix, with black Styrofoam wing tips that simulate feathers.

The success or failure of Panamarenko's objects depends on whether they live up to what the viewer expects of them, which in turn depends on their context. The only constant for the artist is that his works are “ideal” and based on “the ideal nature of form,” while for many viewers, the “ideal” nature of a flying machine is that it flies. But to understand Panamarenko's work, you have to understand that liftoff is only one of many possible measures of success.

Martha Schwendener