Panamarenko: artistic and technological jack-of-all-trades
Henri Van Herwegen came into the world on 5 February 1940 in Wilrijk. This ordinary boy emerged as a multi-faceted personality: artist, inventor, technician, engineer, physicist, mathematician, philosopher and visionary. Everyone knows him better by his pseudonym, Panamarenko.
He knocked together this melodious-sounding nickname from two existing names. It reflects his character as a man who is passionate about everything to do with space, movement, flight, energy and gravity. Airline company Pan American Airlines & Company expresses the longing to literally spread one's wings and make for the heavens, leaving the earth behind. He also once heard the name of a former Soviet politician mentioned on the radio: Panteleimon Ponomarenko. That was all he needed.
From 1955 to 1960, Panamarenko studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. At the same time, he began to apply himself to the natural sciences at the city's scientific library. His training and self-study soon resulted in spectacular and imaginative scale models of a strange and playful beauty, a combination of artistic and technological experiments. Who could fail to be enthralled by his startling designs of floating, winged and motorised aircraft, helicopters with pedals, Zeppelins, flying backpacks, water and space vessels, airships, mechanical robots, etc.? His well-known Aeromodeller from 1971 and the first Archaeopterix from 1990, an intelligent flying chicken, make clear that this individual could not find a home in any single modern-day art style or movement, as unique and innovative as they are. "Could his creations really fly?" This is a question that has been asked more than once, but never answered. This is a good thing, too - let this reflection remain part of the mystery and allure.
In 2002, Panamarenko donated the house he had lived and worked in for over 30 years, on Biekorfstraat in the former Antwerp working-class district of Seefhoek, including its studio and furnishings, to the Flemish Community. It is managed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp (M HKA). Besides all the authentic objects, decorations, furniture, clothing and artworks, it is absolutely worth it if nothing else for the roof-mounted helicopter platform that was installed in 2011.
Panamarenko made a name for himself in 40 years as an artist, both at home and abroad, with his poetic constructions. From Antwerp, he flew to Brussels, Ghent, Knokke, London, Basel, New York, Salzburg and Istanbul … until he decided to bring his artistic career to an end in 2005 with a simple fax, in his own brief but highly original manner: ‘It is 2005 and I am 65. I am going to cease all my activities. Kind regards, Panamarenko.’ Nobody could ever have suspected him of being keen on media attention.