Panamarenko and his contemporaries - "Learn to imitate the flight of birds"

Panamarenko-Noordzee pedalo 1994

Panamarenko and his contemporaries: Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, Jef Geys, Hugo Heyrman, Bernd Lohaus & Bruce Nauman

Panamarenko (1940-2019). A retrospective is being arranged in Antwerp, his hometown, and a number of Belgian museums will also be going the extra mile to highlight Panamarenko in 2020. Mu.ZEE keeps several of the artist's most renowned works and is displaying a selection of these in the Learn to imitate the flight of birds exhibition, in dialogue with works by Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, Jef Geys, Hugo Heyrman, Bernd Lohaus and Bruce Nauman, among others.

It was around 1965, in Antwerp, that Panamarenko and Hugo Heyrman got together to organise a number of street campaigns and happenings. These campaigns, which Panamarenko dubbed the Milkyway Happenings, go hand in hand with the publication of Happening News, a series of seven issues composed of collages by both artists. The collages and happenings are inextricably linked, with the collages a remnant of their era on paper. They exude the stifling hot zeitgeist so typical of the sixties. The world had begun to buck the system, and 1968 was a pivoting point. Here and there, peace demonstrations were quelled with the boot and fist. At the same time, this was happening, there was an insane space race underway. The universe had suddenly become ‘attainable’. No longer was space home to the stuff of dreams. What was once a sanctuary was now open to the prying eyes and slow creep of cosmonauts, astronauts and a dog named Laika. In addition to a tremendous fascination for American pop culture, Happening News also reflects Panamarenko's burgeoning passion for science and technology. In the very first collage of the artist’s Happening News, we see the following phrase in print: ‘Learn to imitate the flight of birds.’ And the collage? It’s packed with birds, a Wright Brothers’ folding bike, complicated scientific calculations, astronauts, a balloon, and more. 

Like clockwork, the Milkyway Happenings arranged by Panamarenko and Heyrman were interrupted and brought to a halt by the police. Their campaigns inspired Anny De Decker in 1966 to open the Wide White Space gallery. According to her, this was to create a space where the happenings could continue on unhindered. The first exhibition opened with a Milkyway happening but also included visual works by Panamarenko, Hugo Heyrman and Bernd Lohaus. Wide White Space grew in the late sixties and in the seventies it became a hot spot on the Antwerp – and by extension, Belgian – art scene, acting as a hub for national and international artists. Panamarenko met Bernd Lohaus, as well as Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys and Marcel Broodthaers. 

The Milkyway happenings punctuate Panamarenko's early quest as an artist, astronaut, 'happy-space-maker', and multimillionaire. Looking smooth in his white suit, the artist made his appearance at public screenings and noticed that he had no trouble whatsoever selling his persona. Towards the end of the sixties, Panamarenko discontinued the happenings to focus solely on the research he was really interested in. And still, he continued to swear fealty to the identity he'd constructed for himself. As time went on, he exchanged his multi-millionaire suit for that of a soldier. From then on, he went clad in a military uniform reminiscent of Soviet Russia’s Red Army – hammer and sickle on cap included. Art is an experience. The ‘attitude’ fed the imagination just as well as the campaigns and works of art themselves. 

Panamarenko is best known for his research into all kinds of fantastic ships, ‘cars’ and flying machines. One-by-one, the objects of his studies broke free of his imagination to appear in the real world. The machines he invents are symbolic of human creativity and are a lever for personal dreams. The result is a cobbled together mishmash of poetry. He’s less interested in functionality and more in the purpose and potential. He’s at his happiest when up to his neck in the construction process, miles away from issues of feasibility and the likelihood of implementation. 

However, one of Panamarenko's biggest dreams was to be able to fly like the birds do. ‘Learn how to imitate the flight of birds.’ Panamarenko designed several model jetpacks between 1984 and 1986, inspired by James Bond in Thunderball and Star Trek's Captain Kirk. These heroes had single-seater planes. Panamarenko's machines are propelled by human energy and kept aloft by thrusters worn on the back. The Pastille motor is another derivative of this idea. These works symbolise the artist's efforts towards a true symbiosis between humankind and nature.


One truly remarkable example is the A' Flying Cigar' called 'Flying Tiger’ model (1978). This spacecraft can manoeuvre outside of the atmosphere and draws energy from the effects produced by magnetic fields. The title, Flying Tiger, is a reference to classic ufology as well as to the nickname of The American Volunteer Group, a team of fighter pilots that flew missions in South Asia and China in 1941 and 1942, just after Pearl Harbor. 


One of Panamarenko's most famous models is the Aeromodeller – his very first airship – created between 1969 and 1971. This huge machine could be seen at Documenta V in Kassel in 1972. The dirigible is the embodiment of the artist's dream – to fly free as a bird through the air, any time he wanted. For him, the dirigible is a house, floating on the clouds. Panamarenko decided to test out his zeppelin's airworthiness in 1971, using the field of fellow artist, Jef Geys, in Balen. The target destination of the test flight was Sonsbeek, some 130 km away in the Netherlands. The Dutch aviation authorities, however, forbade the crossing. On the field itself, an oncoming storm doomed the mere attempt at take-off to failure.