October 24th, 2010

you’re doing it wrong, Panamarenko

Bernouilli by Panamarenko. Photo by Dirk Pauwels.

Panamarenko is a contemporary Belgian artist whose work is often aeronautical or mechanical in theme. His work had quite a large presence at the recent Xanadu! exhibition at Ghent’s museum of contemporary art this summer. That’s where I saw his Bernouilli (pictured above).

Most of all I like his humour and the idea behind his methodology. From the Xanadu! guidebook:

What Panamarenko does in fact in all his works is not to try to make something work that will never work. What he does is to ask himself how something might work even if it’s approached in a wrong manner. When he makes a flying rucksack with a Suzuki engine like Hazerug (1992-1998), he turns the Suzuki engine upside down because it looks better that way. It doesn’t function because the spark plug is flooded. Then he searches for ten years for ways to make the engine run after all, even though it’s used upside down. Anyone that knows anything about engines sees right away that the engine’s hanging upside down. It’s a joke. Yet from that joke flows an in-depth study from which Panamarenko learns an awful lot. After ten years study and testing he knows why the Suzuki engine can never work upside down. He is constantly acquiring fresh knowledge by saying that for aesthetic reasons something should be able to function even if it’s approached in a wrong way — that’s the funny side of it, because it always starts from aesthetic reasons that interfere with the usual approach of a mechanism and then begins a period of amazing research that can last a long time and that can lead to very many formal and technical results.

The idea of starting with an apparently unworkable concept is appealing to me because it aligns with a recent revelation of mine. Often I am prone to a perfectionism in my own creative work, to the extent that it actually debilitates me or prevents me from starting work in the first place. Recently I’ve discovered that the key is not to set standards of perfection towards which to work, but rather to be constantly aware of the process and to make unexpected or contrary developments work in your favour. To always be open to improvisation, even when you had the “perfect” outcome in mind already. This way there is no point of failure — there is only a rising gradient of difficulty, the end of the process being marked by a gut feeling of arrival.

To start out with perfection in mind is crippling to any creative process. When your initial expectations are (inevitably) disappointed, you can either become frustrated or try to re-evaluate the project. If you become frustrated and upset, you are no longer in the frame of mind necessary to be creative, i.e., open, resourceful, confident, interested.

Perhaps you could see the difference in practice as not seeing the artwork as yours until you have arrived at the end point. If you are attached to a project or artwork from the start, it becomes already an extension of you. And when you see something you don’t like developing in the project — something worrying because unexpected — the initial reaction is to disown the project. To cast it off as a failure, and to either restart or quit at that point. This is like when something unplanned and apparently unresolvable happens to us, or in us, in everyday life; there’s a tendency to be taken by self-pity, which is a way of disowning the self. Of saying “this is no longer my responsibility, I give up”. Just like in life, the solution is a combination of persistence, flexible thinking and a sense of humour.


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