Art world prankster, art entrepreneur, and Belgian Conceptual artist Wim Delvoye has redefined what it means to be an enfant terrible in the art world, which if you consider contemporary art these days is a pretty hard feat to master.
Earlier this year he presented a series of his works at Galerie Perrotin Hong Kong. On display was one of his famous ‘Twisted Dumptrucks’ in laser-cut laced steel; a never-before shown series of bas-reliefs; and new bronze sculptures, Janus-like and drawing on the ideas of Rorschach plates. But it is his more controversial works that have won him accolades and a fair number of critics.
During the 1992 Documenta IX, he stole the show with his tattooed pigs, which incurred the inevitable wrath of animal activists. Delvoye, a vegetarian has subsequently created a pig ‘art farm’ in China where he tattoos and ‘harvests his art products’. More controversial still is ‘Tim’ (2006). Known as ‘the man who sold his body to art’, Tim Steiner, tattooed by Delvoye, was sold as a living breathing work of art.
Delvoye exhibits an almost encyclopedic knowledge of art history and cultures both in conversation and in his work, which has its roots in ironic interpretations of past styles. Demonstrating his mastery of one-upmanship, Delvoye drew on the work of Piero Manzoni and his ‘Merda d’Artista’, when in 2000 he exhibited ‘Cloaca’, a machine that replicates the human digestive tract and reproduces the ensuing waste. The work explores the relationship between art production and human production, yes, but it is also a tongue-in-cheek poke at the art world, of the banality of contemporary art ‘production’, and production-line-like art. Further illustrating his point, over a decade he has constructed a series of ‘Cloaca’ machines and developed a whole spin off production: packed excrement, toilet paper, ‘original drawings’, scale models, and videos. He represents an art production popularised, but by no means pioneered, by certain YBA artists, mocking it while at the same time manipulating and exploiting it. His Disney-themed website features an array of ‘art products’, including: jewellery, tattoos, a ‘Wim action doll’ (for EUR249, it comes with a Cloaca toy, tattoo machine, outfit for ‘art events’ and ‘farm events’), and colouring book. Delvoye seems to delight in making sport of our fetishisation of art and art collecting.
His jokester approach to contemporary art and refusal to take it all too seriously is refreshing in an art world where artists, like reality TV stars and celebrities, are becoming increasingly ‘managed’, feeding one the same sanitized quotes easily found in their press releases. Always ready with an incendiary but informed bon mot, and with a flair for unaffected showmanship, he is quite comfortable with the non-conformist niche he has carved out for himself. In fact, he revels in it.
With an accented gravelly voice that sounds like a packet-a-day smoking habit, and an excitable fidgetiness and expressive gestures that are impossible to contain, Delvoye’s speech is a stream of consciousness, where ideas and several different trains of thought all collide at once. We caught up on the eve of his Perrotin Hong Kong show, chatting indefatigably and distractedly about everything from European politics to the state of contemporary art, Ai Weiwei, his Hong Kong exhibition, and his latest project.
INTERVIEW WITH WIM DELVOYE
On Asia and the West
“We’re both Asia lovers. We keep meeting one another in Asia … I’m not doing any of the other fairs, Armory and all that; I prioritise Asia. I have a studio in Shanghai, I worked in the Philippines, and in early ‘90s worked in Indonesia to learn carving, to do these crafts. This was in ’91; using craft then was strange. One of the first things I did was start using traditional craft again (big taboo!), and I got famous because it was a big shock, people thinking, “Look at this guy using ornamental traditional craft and kitschy things!” But there were other people like that too; Jeff Koons started using ceramics, and Alighiero Boetti was doing tapestry in Afghanistan earlier than anybody else, but it still looked very 20th century. So I went to Indonesia and started looking at wood carving. My strategy is to listen to the local craftsmen. It gives you more insights.
I really don’t like the Western culture; from early childhood I felt uneasy with Western culture. I’ve always had an attraction to foreign cultures. My father used to be a teacher in the Belgian Congo, so I grew up with all this African art and masks. I liked African masks … My sister and I, our first stories were with African drums. When we were young we were surrounded by crocodile skins, leopard skins, weapons, and musical instruments that my father had on display … We had our newspapers perched on a taxidermy leg. So there were all these colonial elements to our upbringing.
Globalisation and Art
I went to art school before I really even went to churches … I was always aware of culture and how cultures differed. This whole thing of globalism wasn’t a definition for me. Globalism for me isn’t about everywhere in the world making the same thing. For me its about variety, to be different everywhere. Everything should fall into smaller different cultures … The ideology of today is not that of a Christian society, or a Greek Roman society; the ideology today is that we are a capitalist society and all the values we share with one another are capitalist. Art is expected to have a global message, like products. Galleries and artists are judged as entrepreneurs. And when you read interviews of entrepreneurs, it seems that they see themselves as artists.
20th Century Art
In the 20th century if you want to express your success in life you buy an art piece, or you buy a Ferrari. Both ways people are going to be impressed by you for having this ‘thing’. But, it somehow makes more sense to be impressed by someone who owns a Ferrari, because this Ferrari represents everything we know about materials, aerodynamics, engineering. It’s a trophy based on some good reasons; it accumulates a lot of civilization and it all comes together in this one car. There is a sense of evolution – it will be a better car, a safer one, a faster one … But, what is evolution in art? In the 20th century evolution in art was about just one thing – reductionism! You make an art piece with a few less miles, while this Ferrari is expensive because of the extra miles. You touch the leather and it’s real leather, the dashboard mmmm … smells nice; everything is made of the best materials. If you are looking at jewellery, a diamond, clothes, or bags, you know, it makes sense Hermes is more expensive, you can see it.
The whole 20th century in art was a funny thing, because it was all about less miles. We see terrible art now that doesn’t do the extra miles anymore … you know, the cubists and their, ‘Fuck perspective! Lets just not bother!” attitude. Then the next generation comes: “Oh we want to be famous, let’s not bother about colours, or anatomically correct drawings.” Then another generation comes: “We are the whateverists and we just don’t want to bother too much on this, let’s just do monochromes.” In the 1920s 20th century art got its shape, the rules were written. So I arrive in the late 20th century, and the book-keeping was done! There is the library of 20th century art and I think, how can I be in that book? The book is already printed. So people in the late ’80s who were ambitious enough would not bother; they started questioning instead.
Ai Weiwei interrupts the interview with a call to discuss his jewellery design collection. It seems a timely cue to ask about Delvoye’s friendship with the artist.
On Ai Weiwei
I didn’t know he’d go too much into politics. As soon as we talk about politics we disagree, because I’m into China, with a big admiration for the country. I think that I invested smartly going into China, and then this guy … I say, “You are idealizing Europe and you don’t even know how free you are in China!”, and he says, “But you are idealizing China and you don’t know how bad it is!”
We are really good friends, but we don’t think in line on the political. Whatever he says abut China, the West is so happy to hear that they are better off, which is not true. It’s a big lie. He’s serving their purpose; he doesn’t want to serve that purpose, but he does. He thinks he’s going to change society by criticizing Chinese society? No, he’s just making a lot of success for himself in the West. The West wants to hear again from someone how terrible it is in China, you see? Ai Weiwei says his opinion and he’s one year and a half in jail. That makes the European feel good.
Building a Sculpture Park
I want to build a twenty hectare sculpture park, next to Ghent; Ghent doesn’t have any. It’s huge for Belgium. I bought the property because I really fell in love with it. “Let’s restore the castle” I thought, “and make an unbelievable garden!” I ordered the caterpillars to clear out the moats and do the sculptures around the moats. The moats protect the sculptures from thieves … Anyway, for five years I have been penalized [due to complications with permits and regulations] and have had to go to court, and was treated really badly. I keep saying to journalists and friends, “I’m the Ai Weiwei of Flanders because you’re really putting me in jail.”
Exhibition at Galerie Perrotin Hong Kong
These things on the wall [bas-relief sculptures] are sculptures for the space in the second dimension. There’s a particular influence to them. When Ai Weiwei was in jail I needed a new friend; I don’t have many friends. When I have one friend I’m happy, I don’t change friends. But when Ai Weiwei was gone, I got to know Entang [Wiharso] from Indonesia. I invited him over. I wanted him to do a big piece for the castle, a fence. That would be my first project in Belgium. Entang is making a special kind of work. So I said, let’s also do aluminium and bas-relief, but it will be completely different from what he does; I use computers, and he does his by hand and it looks very third world. He does his aluminium himself in the garden with the neighbours; mine needs to be perfect. So this is like an homage to his work — of course I don’t want to rip off his work. But I also needed to have something to fill the walls.”