Bio-Chicken 2009

Review Marian Cousijn May 24, 2014 - The Correspondent

The camera zooms in on the head of a chicken between bars. Dull feathers, the yellow beak pointing upwards. The eyes are covered by a white membrane and surrounded by critters. The chicken opens her beak, throws her head back with one last effort, and then drops it forward against the gauze. A transparent liquid drips from the beak, that moves up and down a few last times. It becomes a trickle, and then drops again. In the background the sound of an ambulance passing by is heard. The chicken is no longer moving. The dripping stops. The chicken is empty. Dead. Its feathers against the fence will soon get cold. It is all over in less than ten minutes. "Unbelievable," sighs the old man sitting next to me on the museum bench, "how much moisture comes out of this beast." "But they could have filmed it more pretty," his wife replies.

Death scenes, art history is full of it. But rarely do you feel a work of art like this video: Hans van Houwelingen's Biokip (2009). What you look at is actually way too pathetic, too intimate, too uncomfortable. The work is as simple as it is moving. The artist has hardly edited, you just see a chicken in close up dying of old age. Or, how common is that, a chicken that dies of old age? The vast majority of chickens face much earlier death in the horrific bio industry. This chicken has been lucky enough to grow old and die a natural death. But that natural death turns out to be less idyllic than expected. The title of the work makes you think about these issues, but for the rest the artist does not explain: whether this chicken is better off than its peers from the factory industry remains unspoken.

The chicken from the video scrambled around in the garden at Van Houwelingen's studio, where he had seen her hatch from the egg years ago. She had no name, but he had always found her a special chicken: she was huge and very affectionate. When the artist arrived at his studio one morning, he saw that the chicken had not long to live. He grabbed his camera and started filming. "It was almost as if the chicken had been waiting for this, within a few minutes she was dead," said Hans. "She died quite elegantly, but I felt remorse." I asked him if he had thought of relieving the chicken from her suffering. "It went through my mind for a while, but I wouldn't know how to do that. I just don't know that much about chickens, nor do I have a very principled opinion on this. I also just eat pre-packaged chicken from the supermarket."

Why did he decide to make an artwork from the video? "Because it was special to witness the moment. This chicken was lucky to live that long, bio industry makes few chickens awarded that. Meanwhile I also keep chickens in a coop, I am part of that system myself."