The Body as Machine, Taken to Its Extreme
New York Times
January 20, 2002
William Delvoye's ``Cloaca,'' to the right, is a contraption that processes food from the start of the digestive cycle to the finish. Mr. Delvoye professes that art and life are equally futile
IN 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the poet and author of the "Futurist Manifesto," proclaimed, "A racing car whose hood is adorned by great pipes . . . is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace." Within the next five years, artists as diverse as Fernand Lιger, Kasimir Malevich, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp all used mechanistic imagery in their paintings to allude to the body the central icon of Western art in motion or in repose. A more literal use of machine iconography followed, in, for example, the work of Jean Tinguely, who produced sculptures that could move, make noise, draw or self-destruct, like us.
"Cloaca" (2000) represented a conclusion of sorts to a century of development in machines that could duplicate human activities. This vast contraption comprising an In-Sink-Erator, a computer-controlled reactor, peristaltic pumps, an intricate electrical system and glass jars containing acids and micro-organisms ingested and digested food with the sole purpose of generating feces. It was a brainchild of Wim Delvoye, 36, the enfant terrible of the Belgian art scene, and was realized with the help of gastroenterologists, computer scientists and engineers in an extraordinary feat of artistic collaboration.
What humans produce effortlessly, "Cloaca" fabricated at considerable cost, thus raising important questions having to do with consumer society and the art market in particular. All art is useless, Mr. Delvoye claimed, and this project underscored the futility of art and life.
Now "Cloaca New and Improved" has arrived. This room-size intestine, which was specifically adapted to fulfill sanitary requirements of the United States Department of Health, will be featured at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo starting on Friday and will be fed twice a day, courtesy of several New York restaurants, through April 28.
Mr. Delvoye, who lives in Ghent, was raised in Wervik, a small town in West Flanders. His upbringing was nonreligious, he says, but growing up in a Roman Catholic society, he was struck by the power of images.
"I have vivid memories of crowds marching behind a single statue as well as of people kneeling in front of painted and carved altarpieces," he said in a recent conversation at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. "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."
"We were told in school that it was almost impossible to make a living producing art," he said. "Moreover, it was understood that as Belgians we could not possibly hope to become players on the international scene. This freed me. I had nothing to lose."
Mr. Delvoye began to paint thickly over wallpaper and carpets, following the lines and color schemes of the ready-made patterns and thus rebelling against the fashionable idea of free expression. "One century ago, the poor lived in empty spaces while the rich covered their walls with wallpaper and their floors with carpets, and hung chandeliers from their ceilings," he said. "Today the situation is reversed, and the rich choose to live in white, minimal spaces."
From the start, his work had to do with class, decorum and conventions of taste. But he decided to move away from anything smacking of Neo-Expressionism. He was attracted to artists who were not "involved with the pleasure of painting" but who illustrated an idea, he said. "Artists like Magritte, who is such a dreadful painter. He is so hygienic. Here is the concept he simply carries it out."
Unlike Magritte, Mr. Delvoye eventually had others execute his works, guided by his designs. He himself did most of the work of the late 1980's: the gas canisters and saw blades painted with patterns appropriated from knockoff delftware, and the ironing boards and shovels decorated with coats of arms. After 1990, the production of his work was almost always entrusted to specialists.
"These historical images amaze me," he said of the coats of arms, "because they survive through all these centuries and still exist as a paradigm of something. The use of such explicitly regional imagery has made my work internationally relevant in this era of identity politics.
"We Belgians are attracted to humble things and are aware of the futility of life," he added, referring to the ironing boards and shovels.
In his campaign to eradicate the hand of the artist, Mr. Delvoye went so far during the 90's as to have a team of Indonesian woodworkers carve a full-size cement truck of teak and incise it with an ornate Louis XV pattern. "The tension in Delvoye's work," the Flemish art critic Lieven van den Abeele wrote in the yearbook Low Countries in 2000, "is brought about by this confrontation between an object and an image which ostensibly have nothing to do with each other."
Mr. Delvoye's surreal impositions of images on objects render the objects useless: art, as he sees it. He teases the soccer-loving Belgians in "Penalty II" (1992), replacing the net of a soccer goal with stained glass, an example of the fragile kitsch with an aura of sanctity found in quite a few Belgian households. The stained glass shows a baker shoving loaves into an oven, a sentimental image. But viewers tempted to smile may be mildly shocked when they spot a child kneeling with exposed buttocks, preparing to defecate near the bread. Here as elsewhere, the theme of scatology, once explored in the art of the Low Countries by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is experiencing a renaissance in the strategies of the avant-garde.
Perhaps significantly, Mr. Delvoye's own feces introduced him to the international art world in 1992, when his "Mosaic" was widely noticed at Documenta IX, the contemporary-art survey in Kassel, Germany. The work consists of glazed tiles bearing identical images of his excrement, arranged to form symmetrical and highly ornate patterns.
"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," Jan Hoet, the organizer of Documenta IX, said recently. "Seriousness arises from the way in which the traditional arts and crafts are dealt with, and the unassuming nature of folk art is transcended through an act of the intellect."
In 1999, Mr. Delvoye again taunted the Belgians, this time for their pride in their cuisine, by producing intricate geometric configurations comprising sections of ham, mortadella and salami, laid out to resemble ornately patterned marble floors, which were photographed, then destroyed. Here, as in "Cloaca," he hints at the themes of artmaking and consumption. What binds us together, he suggests, is that we all eat and excrete.
Ingestion and defecation are acts at which "Marcel," a live pig exhibited as a moving sculpture, excels. "Marcel," sporting a Hell's Angels tattoo an eagle with spread wings and the name Harley Davidson across its back and sides, is one of those politically incorrect statements that one can accomplish more easily in Belgium than in the United States. Mr. Delvoye needed the help of an anesthesiologist and a tattoo artist to help him create such a singular object.
In Belgium, he also found a radiologist to assist him with a new body of work in stained glass: taking X-rays of couples, partly covered with refracting barium, engaging in sex. Radiography, he suggests, reduces the body to a machine. Now that his ultimate machine, "Cloaca," has arrived in New York new and improved or not a practical question arises. What happens to the resulting waste?
At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, Belgium, where "Cloaca" was first exhibited in the fall of 2000, the end products were suspended in resin inside large glass jars, which were displayed on stainless steel shelves, with menus hanging beside them documenting what "Cloaca" had been fed. The jars and their accompanying menus sold well at $1,000 apiece.