Up, down, flying around

Art - John Henshall on one man's magnificent machines

The self-styled Panamarenko, the "visionary" artist who for 30 years has been making ungainly yet mesmerically engrossing devices, cuts a peculiar figure. At the Hayward Gallery opening of his first (eponymous) solo show in this country, he appeared looking like a reporter for Rolling Stone, circa 1979, his comfy zip-up jumper suggesting a secret penchant for ram-raiding thrift stores. "He's the original inventor," someone whispered as, together with Panamarenko, we gazed at his Noord Zee Pedalo (1994). "Wouldn't you, well, keep going under water, however hard you pedalled?" asked an onlooker of this bizarre water-cycle. The artist (sculptor/engineer/technologist/physicist - Panamarenko is essentially unclassifiable) stroked his chin and mumbled mischievously: "You'd have to get used to that . . ."

The scene captured perfectly the singular life and oeuvre of a highly private man who delights in constructing flying saucers, airships, submarines and countless other, often lethally improbable, inventions. Panamarenko is an urban hermit who, for all his love of motion, rarely leaves Antwerp where he was born in 1940. He went to art school there "with the mistaken notion that design would provide [me] with a decent living". In fact, he seldom attended classes and spent his time in science libraries or at the cinema. When he took a higher degree, he was already one of Antwerp's aesthetic avant-garde. He says he was an "unofficial student" whose erratic attendance was "clandestine".

He duly abandoned an already unorthodox training and devoted his energies to the visualisation and construction of objects that are at once arcane, dreamily appealing works of art and serious explorations of how, through aesthetics, mankind might break free of the prosaic constraints of predictability, unimaginativeness and the status quo. All of Panamarenko's constructions are intended to work, given the right motors, rotors, sails or other essential equipment.

As I followed Panamarenko around the Hayward show, it became obvious that the artist was fully aware of the quiet hilarity that his work evinces: not just because of the seemingly impossible nature of his pieces, but because of the wry and insouciant irony they express. He explained, earnestly, major works such as Bing of the Ferro Lusto (1997): Bing (the "ping" of sonar radar) is the motor, and the Ferro Lusto is a spaceship "which will carry 4,000 people". Panamarenko has been experimenting on this in his studio since the 1970s, though he hasn't built it yet. He will need a very large workshop.

Some people couldn't take him seriously. One asked, of a homemade jet aircraft: "But surely this thing would never fly?" Panamarenko looked toward the window, where two cleaners on a precariously swaying platform could easily have been part of the exhibition. "Well . . . [long pause], the engine works," he shrugged, indicating that it was time to examine another exhibit. I thought of the song about the man pulled over by the highway patrol for running a red light at 90mph in a rust bucket: "Well I oughta run you in but I'm gonna let you go/'Cos there ain't nothing wrong with your radio . . ."

Next we admired Panamarenko's Bernouilli flying machine (1995): "It uses upside-down parachutes which inflate. You don't see many of those," he told us proudly. His prized work, Panama (1998), is a pocket submarine intended to go into space aboard the Ferro Lusto to seek water on remote planets. Should any national space agency need to identify this craft, the artist's name helpfully adorns the conning tower in large red Cyrillic characters.

Panamarenko prizes his Archaeopteryxes, or "wooden chickens", (1990-91) because one actually walked. Unfortunately, in the exhibition, it is lying on its back with its legs in the air ("Perhaps I'll try plastic ducks instead"). His Aeromodeller (1969-71) is a life-size airship with gondola and working engine: "I asked the Dutch if I could fly it to Holland. They said they'd jail me for five years if I did."

For Panamarenko, "if" has many contexts. If only there were bigger engines, propellers or parachutes. Then, he calculates, his bizarre objects would work perfectly. He reminds us, unerringly, that when art, technology and inspiration combine, dreams do come true. If his creations seem doomed to remain earthbound, he says, it is because those who view them are imaginatively earthbound themselves. I shall remember him pointing at a miniature space rocket and assuring us that, if used correctly: "You could go to Jupiter . . . Well, maybe Spitsbergen, anyway."

"Panamarenko" is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1, until 2 April. The show tours to the Museum Jean Tinguely, Basel, Switzerland, from 17 May until 22 October

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why the party still needs its soul