Wim Delvoye was born in Wervik, Belgium, in 1965. He was not from an especially artistic background, a fact that he feels allows people to identify with his art in a way that is difficult with more traditional forms. Nonetheless, he developed a love of art at an early age, both through his attendance of museums with his parents and his love of drawing at school. Several of his childhood creations can be found on his highly interactive website, and his early love of art led him to later enrol at art school.
His childhood was also to kindle an interest in the use of symbolism and idolatry that was to form a central part of his life’s work; whilst not from a religious family, the Catholic traditions of his region were inescapable, and Delvoye explains that, “Although I was barely aware of the ideas lurking behind these types of images, I soon understood that paintings and sculptures were of great importance”.
One of the major aspects one has to confront in examining Delvoye’s working life is that his oeuvre is not easily categorised into time-limited series; a fact that sets him apart from many other artists, contemporary or otherwise, and reflects the nature of his attitude towards art. The ideas he continues to work on today were conceived from the very start of his art career; rather than moving onto new subjects, Delvoye views his role as an artist as one of constant refinement and re-exploration. His work can, however, be separated into three major strands and, whilst he continues to develop all three simultaneously, their differing points of conception may help to illuminate Delvoye’s development as an artist.
Delvoye’s earliest work began the longest running of these strands. His earliest pieces involved using highly traditional Dutch crafts and techniques to decorate every day, practical objects. These earliest creations, undertaken between 1988 and 1991, applied the traditional Delft blue enamel, usually reserved for use on delicate china, to objects traditionally considered to have only practical use, such as saw blades, gas canisters and shovels, and in doing so rendering them beautiful. Caught somewhere between irreverence and celebration, as is so often the case with Delvoye, one critic argues that it is “the tension between apparent opposites”, the useful but unattractive and the purely aesthetic, that means that “the works of art by Delvoye are never dull and incite the viewer to question their first thoughts”.
Nor were these the only everyday objects to be transformed into art by the Belgian artist. Ironing boards painted with enamel became traditional heraldic shields, were collected together into an installation in 1990; a series of football goals became the frames for beautiful stained-glass windows, created using centuries old techniques and depicting everything from kitchen scenes to Belgian landscapes, priests to coats of arms. Yet the first work to take on the colossal proportions for which Delvoye’s work is often famed was his Cement Truck. This monumental undertaking, begun in 1990 and not completed until 1999, involved the rendering of a life-size Nissan truck in teak in a seventeenth century Flemish Baroque style. Unable to find anyone skilled in the necessary techniques at home, Delvoye eventually found craftsmen in the Pacific jungles of Indonesia, a former colony of Belgium that retained the know-how, now obsolete in the country of their former colonial masters. The result of nine years work: a striking sculpture, at once a celebration of the ancient techniques used to create it and a rebellion against the often strict confines of artistic convention, a traditional interpretation of a mass-produced object and an explosion of self-expression.
This reinvention of mass-produced objects developed into one of Delvoye’s major strands of work; his exploration of the Gothic. Whilst continuing to focus on vehicles and machines used in the construction industries, in moving on from Cement Truck, Delvoye shifted style from the Baroque to the Gothic and brought his materials into the twenty-first century with laser-cut steel as opposed to traditionally carved wood, embarking on a series of work that continues to this day. Many are life-size and of an even more epic scale than their forerunner; Flatbed Trailer (2007), at 22 m long and 4.6 m high, is one particular example, featuring a cement lorry on the trailer of a second, larger lorry, rendered majestic yet surprisingly delicate in Corten steel. Many, however, are scale models of the originals on which they are based that range in size from nearly 2 m long to less than 1m. What they lack in size they do not lose in detail, being every bit as elegant and beautifully rendered as their full-scale counterparts.
Another interesting avenue of his Gothic motif was first explored in 2000, and saw a revival of his interest in the stained glass window, albeit in a very different and far more provocative form than the goals of his early career. With the help of a radiologist and a number of willing friends, Delvoye began to take X-ray images of couples performing various explicit acts. To enhance the images, the participants used barium paint on certain areas of their bodies, but for the most part Delvoye’s was primarily interested in the internal features of the ten couples involved, commenting that, “People look so naked in X-rays, in a sense they”re even stripped of their sexuality; they become like machines”. Some of these images, such as Dick 3 (2000) and Suck 1 (2000), Delvoye presented alone, yet others he cropped and arranged, developing them into nine windows.
The title of the series 9 Muses (2001) is by no means accidental; Delvoye himself argues, “I”m very aware of how beauty is completely detached from all social and ethical values… So a tree or a penis or hands or an X-ray or something perverted can be just like a flower.” Similar series include Days of the Week (2008) and the magnificent Chappelle (2006) for Mudam, Luxembourg, which combined the stained glass windows with laser-cut steel to create a chapel-like structure that epitomises Delvoye’s Gothic ideal. In his windows, measuring up to two and a half metres tall and a metre across, Delvoye weaves the sexual images into geometric patterns, sometimes subtly and sometimes explicitly, yet always with an elegance and passion that led journalist Rob Enright to declare, “The whole thing is remarkably antiseptic at the same time that it’s so sexually charged”.
More recently, Delvoye has developed this Gothic motif into a theme perhaps closer to the architectural style’s traditional use, creating two towers that use the same style and techniques as his industrial machines. The first of these, created for exhibition outside the Penny Guggenheim Museum in Venice, is simply titled Torre (2009) and was originally 9.8 m tall. It has since toured round various cities in Europe, changing its name to reflect the local language on each occasion, and at each exhibition Delvoye has added another section; in Paris it rose to 12 m during its stay at the Rodin museum, and in Brussels it grew to 17 m at Bozar. The second, created in 2010, is named Suppo (1:2) and features a double ended tower that has been twisted into an anti-clockwise helix and either exhibited on a plinth or suspended from the ceiling, giving it the look of a beautiful pendant. It has been exhibited in the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, and is exhibited in the Louvre from May to December 2012. This is not the first structure that Delvoye has twisted; indeed, he has done the same with several of his industrial vehicles and other sculptures ranging from a crucifix to classical statues. Yet, at 6.2 m tall, it is certainly the first of such scale and represents something of a culmination in this particular area of Delvoye’s oeuvre.
The second strand of Delvoye’s work forms a striking contrast with his Gothic works, moving into themes that earned him his reputation for controversy, namely his tattooing of pigs. His first undertaking took place in 1992, on this occasion a skin rather than the live animal, and by 1995 he had tattooed a total of 18. It wasn’t until 1997 that he tattooed a live pig, and even at this stage it was slow progress. Concerns over animal rights caused his work to be opposed, not least by the Amsterdam tattoo artists he enlisted to help him in his project, and the use of the famous Louis Vuitton logo on several of his skins caused the first of his legal issues, as the company attempted to either confiscate the pieces or sue the artist for his alleged breach of copyright. In 2004 he moved his operation to China, where the laws on such matters are slightly less stringent, and in 2005 he moved to a larger residence just outside Beijing.
Delvoye originally became interested in the concept drawing on the notion of a “piggy bank”, enjoying “the idea that the pig would literally grow in value”. Aware of the irony in the combination of fine art and pigs, Delvoye intended from the outset to challenge the art establishment; whilst still in Belgium, he claims that, for a year he “aimed at competing with painting. I wanted to show that what I could do on a pig could be as good as Raphael or Murillo” and describes each pig as “an art piece that pisses and shits and makes a lot of trouble in the system.” As a vegetarian, Delvoye is highly sensitive to the welfare of his pigs; the pigs are sedated, shaved and rubbed with Vaseline prior to the tattooing to reduce the trauma of the act both during and after the tattoo is done, and in October 2006 Delvoye caused something of a stir amongst locals when he ordered a huge amount of coal to keep his pigs warm over the winter. The designs on the pigs vary; in the early days he chose images that were as “as banal and trivial as possible”, but he has since begun to use tattoos designed specifically for the animals, usually hand-drawn. He has also used media and brand images in his tattoos, notably that of Louis Vuitton, KFC and Disney princesses (Indeed, Delvoye often prints or exhibits his name in the style of the famous Walt Disney logo as a comment on what he perceives as “Brands attacking collective memory”), and argues that his work is something of a comment on consumerism and capitalism, claiming that “it grows and it shows, in an ironic way, how investment works”. The pigs are displayed in a number of ways; some are displayed as skins hung from walls, others stretched over canvases, and still others are stuffed in a sitting position “like a stone lion outside a Chinese restaurant”. Yet Delvoye ideally prefers to keep them alive. He states that, “We”re not in a rush to kill them… they”re always more interesting when they”re alive because that border between art and life — the friction and the oscillation between the two — is what interests me as an artist.”
Yet perhaps Delvoye’s most famous and most astonishing project is his internationally renowned Cloaca: a series of machines that replicate the human digestive system. The concept derives from the artist’s interest in consumerism; indeed, the logos for the different machines are often based on famous logos such as Coca-Cola and the fruit company Chiquita. Delvoye believed that the inevitable conclusion of a consumer society was to create a complex machine that served no useful purpose whatsoever and that the most pointless process he could imagine would be to take food and reduce it to waste. With this in mind he spent eight years collaborating with experts in fields as wide-ranging from gastroenterology and bacteriology to computer technology and plumbing. The result was the Cloaca Original (2000), first unveiled at Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst, Antwerp, in 2001, before travelling around Europe and finally to New York.
The name is derived from the Roman name for their sewer system. Delvoye’s interest in excrement was not without precedent; an early series entitled Anal Kisses (1995-2000) featured just those printed onto Hotel letter paper with lipstick, and one of Delvoye’s earliest major pieces Mosaic (1992) featured an intricate tiled floor in which an image of two pieces of faeces were replicated to create a pattern. Indeed, Delvoye is highly conscious of the link between his pigs and his machines: “In a perfect world, I would just show the Cloaca shit machines and live pigs — eating and excreting together”. Yet Cloaca takes this interest to new levels, and, as critic Jean-Pierre Criqui asserts, “takes its rightful place as art history’s greatest inevitability”. The original machine featured a series of glass receptacles connected with clear rubber tubing. At one end is a stepladder which leads up to a basin into which meals are fed twice a day, whilst at the other is a circular tray that collects the resultant material which Delvoye packages in resin and sells at $ 1,000 to help fund the expensive project. Between the two ends a computer controls the complex process of food breakdown with all the necessary chemicals and enzymes necessary, and the entire process takes a total of 22 hours to complete.
Including the original, Delvoye has designed and built a total of fifteen Cloaca machines. These range from the Cloaca New and Improved (2001) to the Cloaca Turbo (2003), from the small Mini Cloaca (2007), measuring around 2 m tall and wide, to the huge Super Cloaca (2007) at over 14 m long, and even a recent travel model, the Cloaca Travel Kit (2011). The number of models for a machine that is so useless serves as something of a comment on the consumer society, and Delvoye adds to the inherent humour with what amounts to something of a faux corporation set-up, with uniforms for operators, spoof logos and mock shares and bonds. Yet within all the light-heartedness and mockery lies an element of seriousness, as the machines serve as both a criticism of our brand-orientated society and as a metaphor for the human condition, with the body as little more than a machine. Jan Hoet sums up both the Cloaca project and all of Delvoye’s work when he asserts, "The strength of Wim Delvoye lies in his ability to engineer conflict by combining the fine arts and folk art, and playing seriousness against irony".
As an artist, Delvoye enjoys a strong international reputation, with exhibitions both in Europe and world-wide. He has participated in a great number of major International artistic events, including the Venice Biennale (1990, 1999 and 2009) and Biennials in Lyon (2000 and 2005), Beijing (2011), South Korea (1997), and Montenegro (1997). His record sales at auction were Flatbed trailer scale model and caterpillar 5C scale model (2004), which sold for £ 230,000 at Sotheby’s London, October 2011, St Stephanus I (1990), which sold for $ 320,000 at Phillips de Pury & Company New York, November 2007, Untiteld (koi) sold for £ 182500 at Phillips de Pury & Company London in 2014 and Dump Truck (2004), which sold for £ 157000 at Bonhams London, October 2011. He is represented by fifteen galleries, including the Galerie Rudolphe Janssen, Brusells, the Gallerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris, and SEM-ART, Monaco.