For chickens as food, see Chicken (food). For the broader species of which chickens form a subspecies, see Red junglefowl. For other uses, see Chicken (disambiguation), Chooks (disambiguation), or Red junglefowl.
I’ve been thinking a lot about chickens recently. Mainly because it has struck me that we don’t know a lot about them. To us, chickens are better known for being deep fried, or doused in piri piri sauce, than for roaming our immediate vicinity, free, and soaring above us like other birds. The words we use to describe chickens, whether it be ‘free range’ or ‘battery farmed’, are epithets that help us to decide how much to pay for their meat. Even if a chicken wanted to fly away, have a new start, it wouldn’t be possible – they attempt flight, but after starting a few feet in the air, tumble back down to earth with a stark inevitability. Chickens aren’t graceful, they’re not beautiful, they’re not clever – to us, chickens are simply ‘chicken’.
Google tells me that chickens are a type of domesticated fowl. There are more chickens on earth than humans: for every one person, there are twelve chickens. Yet chickens exist for the primary purpose of human consumption, we eat their meat, and their unborn offspring: fried, scrambled, or poached.
Wikipedia describes chickens as being ‘gregarious’. Rather than being birds of independence, they live in flocks. On their Wikipedia entry, subheadings labelled as ‘social behaviour’, ‘courtship’, and ‘broodiness’ provoke thoughts of chickens falling in love. Like humans, chickens evidently also enjoy nights out on the pull, employing similar techniques that may or may not result in a one-night stand.
“To initiate courting, some roosters may dance in a circle around or near a hen, often lowering his [sic] wing that is closest to the hen. The dance triggers a response in the hen and when she responds to his ‘call’, the rooster may mount the hen and proceed with the mating.”
Rarely though, will a chicken reach its full potential. Exiled now to the confines of factory farms, they are often slaughtered around the age of fourteen weeks, never enjoying their own innate ‘gregarious’ spirit. Pushed together in tiny pens, there is little room for wing-lowering and so inevitably, millions of chickens die each year without ever having made it to a circle dance.
Britain slaughters 16 million chickens a week. The slaughtering is fast and intensive, and this is where the birds undergo the rapid change from life to death, from ‘chickens’ to ‘chicken’. Live chickens have feathers, some have combs, and all have beaks and feet. Spot a lone feather on the plucked raw skin of a chicken though, and our stomachs turn. Reminded of the birds they once were, the meat we consume so readily can easily disgust us, but we push it aside, and finish our meal - sucking the bones dry.
We can buy chicken frozen, fresh, in ready meals, breaded or pre-fried, spit roasted, spatch-cocked, filleted, breasted, in drum sticks, as wings, pre-marinated, as stock, in cubes, or sliced wafer-thin. Where once, feathers covered their bodies, we now tear the flesh from their bones with our teeth. Seeing, in Gallery 2 at FACT, Helen Pynor’s chicken portraits: firstly, a nervous but inquisitive farmed chicken, ‘gregarious’ amongst its peers, staring out of the window into the unknown outside, not daring to venture further away from what it knows. Secondly, a plumed and unmoving chicken, dead yet seemingly noble in some way, its wings and legs laid out vertically, 2D as a projection on the gallery floor. Then: a plucked raw carcass, laid seductively on its side as if to welcome you in, pink, fleshy, bone on show. Finally, a supermarket freezer aisle.
The life cycle of a chicken, as dictated by man.
No Such Thing As Gravity is open at FACT until 5 February 2017.