Adolf Loos, the outspoken Austrian designer and critic, argued: “the modern person who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate.” Loos was writing in 1929, and one can only wonder what he would make of the present day vogue for tattoos that cover an arm and half a torso. He would probably see it as a symptom of a society that had fallen irreversibly into decadence.
He would find an ally in Wim Delvoye, the Belgian artist being celebrated in an exhibition at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. The major point of difference being that Loos was doing everything in his power to combat this tendency, while Delvoye says: “Bring it on!”
Over the past two decades, Delvoye (b.1965) has systematically explored every social taboo, every tenet by which civilization distinguishes itself from barbarism. He has done so in a remarkably civilised manner, drawing on the resources of science and technology, and the traditions of skilled handicrafts to create large-scale works that defy everyday logic.
Delvoye is the poster-boy artist for David Walsh, the eccentric millionaire who brought MoNA into being last year, putting Hobart on the map of world art and earning the undying gratitude of the Tasmanian Tourist Bureau.
One of the most provocative items in a first exhibition that set out to confront and hopefully offend its audience, was Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional (2010), an oversized chemistry set that mimics the human digestive system, taking in food and producing a daily deposit of excrement.
The “poo machine” reputedly cost Walsh a million dollars, but there has never been an Australian collector so cavalier about money. He has pulled out all stops for the Delvoye survey, which allows visitors to MoNA to sample no fewer than five versions of Cloaca displayed in a large, mirror-lined room.
This is the centerpiece of the show, although there are plenty of other eye-catching installations including Tattooed Tim, a living work of art who has been conducting tours of the exhibition this past month.
Tim – Tim Steiner from Zurich – is in many ways even more iconoclastic than the Cloaca works, because after being tattooed by Delvoye, he was sold to a German collector via a commercial gallery. Under the terms of the contract of sale he must appear at several art events every year, at the request of the purchaser. When he dies his skin will become the property of the collector, or presumably, of his heirs.
Tim was sold for the same price that Delvoye sells tattooed pigs’ skins from a farm he keeps in China. This systematic attempt to tear down the borders between species; to trample over quasi-sacred concepts such as human dignity, and to use the art context to investigate the biological rather than the spiritual aspects of existence has propelled Delvoye to a lofty position in the hierarchies of contemporary art.
He has fashioned a career with supreme finesse. Most artists tend to embarrass themselves when they talk about their work. Many would sooner say nothing at all, partly from anxiety that what seems profound to the eye may become banal when described or explained. This is not the case with Delvoye, a born salesman who would have been successful in any profession he adopted.
In discussing his work, Delvoye is charming and persuasive to a degree that is virtually unprecedented in my experience. It’s a curious contrast with his patron, David Walsh, who avoids all public statements, preferring to give us his thoughts in stream-of-consciousness raves in the catalogues he publishes.
Beyond the scats and tats, there is an intellectual agenda in Delvoye’s work that pushes him from one big idea to the next. Like his Belgian predecessor, René Magritte, he loves to confound expectations. In a Magritte painting the sky might be bright while the earth is in darkness; an apple might fill an entire room, or a huge stone hang suspended in the air. Delvoye brings us a series of gas cylinders made from porcelain, decorated with blue Delft motifs. The decorated porcelain reappears in a set of long-handled shovels – perhaps in distant homage to Duchamp’s found object sculpture, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915).
In works that invoke both science and religion, metal crucifixions are twisted into the shape of the double helix. In another series huge pieces of industrial machinery such as a cement mixer are made out of elaborately carved teak, while a Meccano model of a Gothic cathedral is twisted into the shape of a cocoon. The elaborate patterning would have been Adolf Loos’s worst nightmare, as he believed that in any society the degree of ornamentation was inversely proportional to the level of cultural sophistication.
Delvoye is aware of Loos’s ideas – he is even mentioned in the catalogue – but would probably argue that proscriptions applicable to the early Modern era bear no resemblance to a world that has come through the irony and hyper-ornamentation of Post-modernism. Delvoye wants to break down the veneer of civilisation and take us back to fundamentals. Nothing could be more basic, more universal than shit, and this may explain the mixture of attraction and repulsion that audiences bring to the Cloaca works.
Other items in this show may have a greater propensity to offend. For example, Viae Crucis (2006), which shows X-ray images of rats acting out the Stations of the Cross; or a series called Anal kisses (2011), in which Delvoye convinced a number of his friends to smear lipstick on their sphincters and make prints on hotel notepaper. Perhaps the most revolting piece is a video called Sybille II (1999), which apparently depicts white and yellow grubs emerging, concertina-like, from the earth. It’s only later one realises this is actually an extreme close-up of somebody squeezing pimples from their nose.
Despite these grotesqueries, it would be naive to see Delvoye as merely a professional provocateur, intent on giving the long-suffering bourgeoisie another smack in the chops. There is aspect of his character that resembles an old-fashioned anarchist. During the launch of this show he said that whenever he visited the Louvre or some other great museum, he would look at the Old Masters and only see evidence of class struggle and inequality. Not even the most hide-bound Marxists would feel relaxed about admitting as much nowadays.
He has not responded by taking up arms against capitalism, but by embracing it. Today, Delvoye is virtually a global corporate entity. His works are constructed by teams of specialists working to his specifications. He constantly plays with logos and brands, writing his name in the manner of Walt Disney and calling his website Wim City. He has even issued share certificates for various projects. His latest grand scheme is to start a new religion, based in India. It will be designed along lines suggested by comprehensive market research, allowing adherents to get maximum satisfaction from their new faith.
None of this is especially far-fetched. Delvoye’s religion could hardly be more improbable than Scientology (invented by a pulp science fiction writer); Raëlism, (founded by a French motoring journalist), or the Jedi faith (based on the Star Wars movies). Even his contract with Tattooed Tim has a precedent in old Japan, where collectors might vie for the posthumous acquisition of a lavishly decorated skin.
What is new is Delvoye’s insistence on putting all of this within an art context. In Wim City, everything from poo, pigs, pus, cement mixers, tattoos, share certificates, and finally an entire religion, can be considered to be ‘art’. This is an impressive achievement – to a degree. Like the Disney Corporation, Delvoye likes his work to be well-made and entertaining. He once told an interviewer: “Boring art doesn’t have more meaning; it’s just boring.”
Although I’m inclined to say “Hear, hear”, when confronted with say, a room full of Damien Hirst spot paintings, I can’t shake off the romantic idea that there is always something in a great work of art that escapes analysis – something that speaks to us on an instinctive, non-verbal level. Call it spiritual, or simply visceral, but this element is absent from Delvoye’s spectacular concoctions. While this obviously appeals to an outspoken rationalist such as David Walsh, I emerged from this show with a hollow feeling. It’s intelligent, high-end entertainment, but there is no fire and ice. So go along and snicker, but don’t expect to feel moved – unless it’s an involuntary tremor in the stomach.
Wim Delvoye, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, until 10 April.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January 2012