Belgian artist and inventor Henri Van Herwegen, who went by the name Panamarenko, has died at the age of seventy-nine, after suddenly falling ill, The Brussels Times reports. While Panamarenko made his name as a painter, performance artist, poet, and sculptor, his fascination with science and technology led him to construct numerous aircrafts and other flying machines ranging from quasi-functional to fantastical objects including a flying carpet and a backpack equipped with a propeller. “To understand Panamarenko’s work, you have to understand that liftoff is only one of many possible measures of success,” wrote Martha Schwendener in a December 2001 Artforum review.
Born in Antwerp in 1940 into a family who worked as boat mechanics, Panamarenko began studying at the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts when he was only fifteen. While attending the institution, he also began to nurture his interest in aeronautics at the scientific library at the University of Antwerp. His first major work was a flying machine called Das Flugzeug, 1967. Projects that followed included a Zeppelin called The Aeromodeller, 1969–71; Archaeopterix III, 1990, a mechanical chicken meant to look like a prehistoric flying dinosaur; and a submarine titled Pahama Novaya Zemblaya, 1996.
In 2005, he became the first living Belgian artist to be given a retrospective at the Fine Arts Museum in Brussels. Following the exhibition, which took place during his sixty-fifth birthday and attracted some 72,000 visitors, Panamarenko revealed that he planned to retire, explaining that he had created so many artworks that he no longer had room to store them. He has also staged solo exhibitions at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterloo, Holland; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Hayward Gallery in London; Dia Center for the Arts in New York; and at the Jean Tinguely Museum in Basel, among other venues.
In 2007, Panamarenko donated his house and studio in the Seefhoek along with all of its contents to the M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp. The museum restored the building and reconstructed Panamarenko’s living space. An upcoming exhibition celebrating Panamarenko’s decades-long career, “Around the World in Eighty Years,” will be staged at Antwerp’s Campo & Campo gallery in January. Featuring around twenty works, the show is a tribute to the artist’s “miraculous world,” which is “centered between pure science, technical genius, and childish enthusiasm.”