Dreaming in Bangladesh
In “Dream of Human Nature”, Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen unveils the essence of his ongoing Cosmopolitan Chicken Project through his latest chicken crossing, the Mechelse Aseel. The interactive exhibition, organised and hosted by the Brihatta Art Foundation and curated by Bishwajit Goswami, is a convergence of art, science and community that invites visitors to actively discover nature as a library of knowledge. An invitation to learn more from nature about who we are and how we can dream and create a more sustainable future.
Brihatta Art Foundation is a research-based young artist-run platform based in Dhaka, with a strong focus on community development and collaboration. For their fall exhibition, they invite Koen Vanmechelen, who as an artist, has been working for over 20 years at the intersection of art, community, and science. His passion is based on the belief in art as a driver of mutual understanding and as a guide in the search for answers to the significant challenges of the 21st century, the relationship between nature and culture, and, in particular, the development of sustainable communities. What should guide us, he stated in his exhibition at Firenze’s Uffizi museum in 2022, is a Cosmopolitan Renaissance that cherishes the biocultural diversity on our planet.
I embrace my role as an artist in shaping a harmonious world. The exhibition’s intricate tapestry celebrates humanity’s diversity, inspiring us to cherish our dreams with a mindful perspective of our nature. In this convergence of art, science, and community, I find hope for a future built on unity and understanding. And I hope visitors will experience the same — Koen Vanmechelen
Positioned within Bangladesh’s cultural hub, the exhibition titled “DREAM OF HUMAN NATURE - ”, seeks to explore how humans live, the dreams we harbour, and the imperative need to tether those dreams with the reality of our existence. Vanmechelen is thrilled to exhibit in Bangladesh for the first time: “It is a fascinating place of ancient civilisations and enormous biocultural hybridity. Through genetics and collaborative art, the exhibition reflects our interconnectedness and calls for sustainable coexistence."
Nusrat Mahmud, co-Founder of Brihatta Art Foundation states; “To dream is what we dare to do in Brihatta. In our subconscious minds, we are gently laying the bricks to a future which unites us in unconventional ways, for us to be able to realise our full potential as human beings. We are beyond excited to host Koen and CCP in Hazaribagh in November, 2023. Our collaboration with Koen and the local community gives us hope to continue our activities within the art space in Bangladesh and beyond.”
At the heart of “Dream of Human Nature” is the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP), Vanmechelen’s global cross-breeding program initiated in 1999. A unique blend of art and science, the chicken is a metaphor for humanity, diversity, and identity. Through diligent crossbreeding over two decades, Vanmechelen achieved an astonishing outcome: a Cosmopolitan Chicken already encompassing the genes of over 28 iconic chicken breeds from different cultural regions. The exhibit in Dhaka showcases the Mechelse Aseel – CCP28. This bird species is born out of the Mechelse Haughaesni – CCP27 and the Aseel, a breed of fowl that originated in Bangladesh. Vanmechelen: “Bangladesh is not far from where the global journey of the chicken, the most domesticated animal in human history, started.”
This captivating chicken’s diversity is meticulously captured in “Open Secret”; a book made with use of avant-garde DNA-mapping technologies. The chicken genome contains more than a billion nucleotides, composed of the four letters of the DNA alphabet. Lined up in a specific order, they make up a code. For this book, the DNA sequence of the Mechelse Aseel – CCP28 was compared to the scientific standard, and genetic diversity was marked when the DNA sequence of the chickens differed. The book’s letters indicate where the genetic makeup differs from the reference chicken genome. The result shows the increasing hybridity of the CCP. Vanmechelens ‘Open Secret’ artwork is an ode to our planet’s diversity and an archive of decades of crossing.
Dream of Human Nature In the central chicken cage, brood lamps hang, fed by electrical cables converging at one point. They are connected to imposing megaphones and 28 television screens that fill the wall. On these television sets, people representing the countries that make up the diversity of the CCP project read aloud the series of letters and numbers composing the Open Secret book in the video work DECODE. Decoding is creating. With the installation, the artist creates a wall of chatter, a modern Tower of Babel, about our DNA. It is a mantra for an ongoing process. Vanmechelen: “In an era in which the mass dissemination of images has detached us from reality, and digital communication replaces the 'human voice', I use the power of seemingly unconnected sounds to weave a web of meaning. What we construct is intertwined with language and communication. However, just like applied mathematics, which has led to creation and destruction, language should be used wisely. Every syllable counts.”
Community The strength of the exhibition also lies in the variety of participatory community projects. Curator Bishwajit Goswami explains; “Brihatta Art Foundation and Koen Vanmechelen present the process of creation in a unique way to the audience in Bangladesh; a process in which the convergence of art and science garner responses of empathy, unity and deep contemplation.” Next to the cage, locally crafted figurines and myriad egg designs, representing the individualistic essence of every viewer, reinforce the rich tapestry of human diversity. The surprising figurines are made by a nearby community and during the exhibition, visitors will have the opportunity to paint them. “The figurines highlight the rich diversity of humanity, and represent the local community. The global only exists because of the generosity of the local. The figurines contain the energy and dreams of the local people. They connect the art temple to the broader context,” Vanmechelen states. Visitors to the exhibit can also participate in the “Love Letters” project, in which Vanmechelen invites people from around the world to handwrite the DNA book, Open Secret, while the local children are challenged to draw a White Eared-Pheasant, Shagga.
Shagga While ‘Open Secret’ lies at the heart of the exhibition, a second DNA book forms the base of a collaborative art project involving creativity, spirituality and community up in the Bangladesh hill tracts. For "Shagga", Vanmechelen collaborated with scientists to sequence the genome of a White Eared-Pheasant, also called Shagga by the indigenous people of The Himalayas. This near-threatened bird species lives close to or above the snowline and can often be found around Buddhist monasteries. Because of its purity, it is seen as a symbol of spirituality.
During his last visit to Bangladesh, Vanmechelen invited Buddhist monasteries to copy parts of the DNA book by hand. It is a project that aims to bring attention to the importance of spirituality in our lives and the need to find a balance between progress and spirituality. Vanmechelen; “The monks accepted my invitation. They understand the dynamics of animals and humans and know the image of the pheasant, lonely in a mountain. They understand that an animal can change your way of thinking and that this can be done through understanding the essence of DNA. It is a different way of looking at life. Together with the Cosmopolitan Chicken, the White-Eared pheasant taught me that spirituality and creativity are essential. The building blocks of our dreams of human nature.”
Title: Dream of Human Nature
Curatorship: Bishwajit Goswami
Location: Brihatta Art Foundation
Duration: 4 - 30 November 2023