In a giant cage-conservatory in Genk, Belgium, a toucan is making eyes at me. It has flown onto a nearby perch from a giant nest emblazoned with the neon words “fertility comes from outside” to get closer to a bowl of grapes on my table. After a small, not-so-gracious jump, the bird trots over the table and takes its prize.
“They’re confident, aren’t they!” says Koen Vanmechelen proudly, also tucking into the grapes. The already surreal environment is further heightened when the Belgian artist tells me that we’re in a studio—something he calls “The Battery”—which is part of his “Cosmopolitan Chicken Project.”
We’re in the Labiomista—a 60-acre complex, the 53,000-square-foot main building and entranceway of which has been designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta.
Labiomista, in Vanmechelen’s terms, translates to “mixture of life” and that’s exactly what the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP) is attempting to make. The 20-year-old crossbreeding program samples chickens from across the world and naturally breeds them, creating a more diverse and subsequently stronger gene pool. As a result, places like Zimbabwe and Ethiopia where Vanmechelen has farms have access to chickens that can live longer in harsh conditions and produce more to benefit communities in need.
In Genk, Labiomista showcases this work with flamboyant aplomb. The space is filled with huge chicken portraits alongside stuffed birds (that have died naturally). By the ground floor entrance, 40 stuffed chickens, native to countries across the world, reside neatly on shelves in a recessed alcove behind glass windows. Vanmechelen has found fame using naturally deceased animals as a medium, and more taxidermy with different animals, stretching beyond Genk’s typical fauna, can be found inside.
The animal art is dotted around the Botta-designed “Battery”—a steel-framed building with polished concrete floors and a series of 20-foot-high windows that provides an open, flexible space for Vanmechelen. The Battery is split in two and is composed of three floors: At the western end, which is raised, is ground level storage space primed for pick-ups and drop-offs; the second floor showcases Vanmechelen’s art; the third, a mezzanine level that has an interior perimeter balcony hosts an office and more storage space. To the east, visitors will find an open-air gallery where stuffed chickens can be found and there will soon be an enclosure for (live) red junglefowl, the bird from which most domestic chickens descend.
“Genk is a wounded place,” said Vanmechelen on a walk around the premises. The small city, which has a population of 65,000, was once home to a successful coal mine, but after that and a zoo that Vanmechelen visited as a child closed, there has been “20 years of nothing.”
Botta has taken the site’s history and Vanmechelen’s investment as his cue. The architect has employed black, coal-like, brick to skin the building and cages, which sit on top and on the western side of The Battery, emulate the tectonics of the defunct Winterslag Colliery nearby.
As for the rest of the site, Vanmechelen’s plans are edging closer to completion. The “Cosmopolitan Culture Park” will be a zoo of sorts, home to domesticated alpacas, nandus, llamas, emus, camels, dromedaries, and ostriches as well as a breeding area for chickens. The animals will be enclosed by natural elements such as a small lake, a moat, and ha-ha walls designed by Belgian landscaping firm Buro Landschap, keeping them from getting too close to visitors and vice-versa.
Vanmechelen has curated a journey through the park; a one-mile-long serpentine concrete pathway traverses the park’s topography from the Botta-designed entrance (Vanmechelen calls it the “Ark”) round to The Battery.
The park also accommodates large-scale sculptures from Vanmechelen and an amphitheater that will be used as a venue for talks by locals, artists, and scientists. A significant proportion of the park will also be left untouched per an agreement with Belgium’s National Parks Department and will be used to bring back wolves to the area.
“People, when they come here, need to understand that it’s a place about human rights and a sustainable society,” said Vanmechelen. “The evolution of the chicken is part of human culture and everyone should be able to see that here.”
Labiomista is scheduled to be open to visitors this summer.