Flights of Fancy

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Dreams of flight-the longing to escape the bonds of gravity, both physically and metaphorically-have inspired artists, musicians and writers for centuries. For over 30 years, these same dreams have propelled the work of the Belgian artist Panamarenko, who creates machines for looking at the world from new angles-sometimes from the skies, sometimes skimming across waves, occasionally underwater. A selection of Panamarenko's idiosyncratic work is on display at the Museum Jean Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland, until Oct. 15.

Panamarenko, a nom de brosse devised in 1962, is a man obsessed with flight. He calls himself an artist-technologist, which neatly sums up the strange world he inhabits between apparently incompatible cultures and mediums. Born in Antwerp, Belgium, he first came to prominence in the 1960s along with contemporary northern European artists Joseph Beuys and Marcel Broodthaers, a fellow Belgian. All three rejected the pop-orientated art fashionable during the period and focused on the real world, predominantly the world of science. "Painting is such a boring thing if you are a young person," Panamarenko once said of his time at art school. "You do it 10 times and if you are even a tiny bit alive you know that the rest of the world is far more fantastic than a painted imitation of it."

He has never explained his choiceof working name, though its associations with the former U.S. airline Pan Am and the country of Panama, and its east-European-sounding suffix, suggest that internationalism, or at least non-specific nationality, was an intention. After leaving art school, Panamarenko initially worked as a performance artist, organizing "happenings" on the streets and in the galleries of Antwerp.

Panamarenko's works cross back and forth between art and science. They have their own vocabulary, somewhere between aesthetics and engineering. They look intriguing and beautiful, but also have functioning mechanical parts and motors-indeed they are presented, almost seriously, as useful devices.

The artist's personal flying machines, for example, are meant to transport the wearer over forests or across mountain ranges. Ping, a 2.5-ton submarine, is intended to be carried into space by another device, Bing of the Ferro Lusto, an exuberant child's image of a flying saucer, "in order to search for water on distant planets." His biggest creation, the Aeromodeller, an 800-cu.-m pupa-like opaque balloon which occupies a whole room in the exhibition, is given forward momentum of up to 20 km/h by four lawn-mower engines and is intended to lift a woven rattan basket. It was designed as "a flying house to impress Brigitte Bardot."

There is a childlike quality to many of Panamarenko's contraptions, as if they could have sprung from illustrations by Heath Robinson. Flugzeug, dating from 1968, evokes the string-and-paper efforts of 19th century would-be aviators, with a bicycle at its center and flimsy canvas wings. K3 Jungle Flyer, made from Kevlar and with a 250-cc motor driving four fans, could easily have debuted in the '50s sci-fi movie Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Some of the machines look downright scary. When he tested the Hazerug, a rucksack-like personal flying machine with a 250-cc, 60-horsepower single cylinder motor encased in tire fiber, it made so much noise, he remembers, "All the people who were with me in the laboratory got scared and ran away and pretty soon, because of the pressure of the huge centrifugal forces on the propeller, the entire thing exploded."

One of the exhibits is an hour-long video of Panamarenko presenting his "scientific" theories. As he talks his audience through the equations scribbled on a blackboard, the artist demonstrates a cavalier attitude toward the laws of physics by telling them to multiply a string of letters and numbers by "10,000 or by Newton-but you don't have to. It's not important."

Unleashing the imagination is the most important function of Panamarenko's work. His whimsical Kepi, a "hat to withstand environmental conditions and people," was inspired by one the artist glimpsed in an Antwerp store window. To demonstrate its waterproof qualities, the shopkeeper had filled the crown with water and a couple of swimming fish.

It doesn't matter that Panamarenko's machines will never take off. Just the fact that this artist-engineer has created them-in defiance of the laws of physics as well as of artistic convention-testifies to the singularity of his obsessive dreams. And in the end, Panamarenko's dream machines do work-by transporting audiences to other worlds.