Twisted de­sire

Neue Luxury - - News - By Char­lie Wolf

The sculp­tural works of Bel­gian artist Wim Delvoye are strewn with wind­ing he­lixes, spi­ralling lad­ders, wind­mills, wheels and coiled di­ges­tive tracts, whose move­ments lead us around, back to the be­gin­nings. These elu­sive, twist­ing mo­tifs evoke an am­biva­lence with re­gards to no­tions of progress— rather than ad­vanc­ing for­wards, we en­counter things in states of con­torted es­cape and eva­sion, turn­ing away and un­weav­ing them­selves.

For his ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tions at the Lou­vre in Paris (2012), and the Pushkin State Mu­seum of Fine Arts in Moscow (2014), Delvoye in­stalled a se­ries of twisted stat­ues amongst the more ‘straight’ ob­jects of the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions. In these works, fa­mil­iar art his­tor­i­cal mo­tifs like busts, putti and the Pi­età are re­pro­duced with high def­i­ni­tion stere­olithog­ra­phy 3D print­ing tech­nol­ogy, be­fore hav­ing their forms twisted— ei­ther clock­wise or an­ti­clock­wise— to the near lim­its of leg­i­bil­ity.

Pro­duced in pol­ished bronze or white lac­quered resin that ap­pears like solid mar­ble, and of­ten dis­played on neo­clas­si­cal plinths, these al­lur­ing twisted stat­ues re­sem­ble the orig­i­nals in their scale, ma­te­ri­al­ity and pre­sen­ta­tion, but the fea­tures of the images are warped through the spi­ralling, so that what we en­counter is more like fleet­ing, un­bound en­er­gies than fixed forms. In Delvoye’s swirled vari­a­tion on a Daph­nis and Chloé statue by Mathurin Moreau, for in­stance, the fig­ures of the in­no­cent lovers are caught up in a vig­or­ous writhing mo­tion that ren­ders their sep­a­rate bod­ies al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able.

In the artist’s Holy Fam­ily se­ries of bronze stat­ues, the cru­ci­fix­ion—per­haps the most iconic im­age in all of West­ern art his­tory— is looped back on it­self, so the cross car­ry­ing the body of Christ is turned into a ring or a möbius strip. There are vary­ing ver­sions of these works; some­times the pun­ished body is stretched out along the out­side of the ring, some­times it is con­tracted into the in­side. Some­times there are two möbius cru­ci­fix­ions in­ter­locked, some­times there are sev­eral nes­tled in­side of one an­other. The over­all ef­fect is one of his­tory si­mul­ta­ne­ously coil­ing into it­self and twist­ing away from it­self, an ex­ag­ger­a­tion that threat­ens to oblit­er­ate the ob­ject’s orig­i­nal mean­ing en­tirely.

Be­sides the re­li­gious and art his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences, Delvoye also draws from the more mun­dane of in­spi­ra­tion as his source ma­te­rial. Twisted Dump Truck (2011), for ex­am­ple, takes the form of a garbage truck and ren­ders it in as­tound­ingly in­tri­cate laser cut steel lat­tice­work, re­sem­bling the ar­chi­tec­ture of gothic cathe­drals, be­fore twist­ing the form around so that one end of the truck curls down on its side. The usu­ally clunky and purely func­tional ob­ject be­comes some­thing sur­pris­ingly se­duc­tive here, ap­pear­ing as if it is in the midst of a pri­vate dance or con­tor­tion.

This work is part of an on­go­ing se­ries where heavy in­dus­trial ma­chin­ery—in­clud­ing ce­ment mix­ers and bull­doz­ers— meet with grace­ful gothic mo­tifs, but­tresses and spires. The pro­duc­tion of these works is an elab­o­rate process; each struc­ture in the gothic se­ries takes around one year to pro­duce, and in­volves the out­sourced labour of com­puter ex­perts, math­e­ma­ti­cians, laser cut­ters and metal welders at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions around the world.

Speak­ing with me over the phone from his stu­dio in Gent, Delvoye re­marks that the re­cur­rence of spi­ral and helix images in his work is “prob­a­bly some­thing for the psy­cho­an­a­lysts to fig­ure out”. What he likes, though, is that twist­ing forms can ad­dress the three- di­men­sion­al­ity of the space, invit­ing view­ers to move around, to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the ob­ject and its sur­round­ings. These sculp­tures can­not be fully per­ceived from any sin­gle point of view— they are three- di­men­sional sit­u­a­tions, that must be en­cir­cled and flirted with from an ar­ray of per­spec­tives be­fore they can ap­pear.

While he en­joys cre­at­ing these im­mer­sive en­vi­ron­ments, Delvoye tells me he also en­dorses two-di­men­sional doc­u­men­ta­tion and the on­line cir­cu­la­tion of pho­tos of his art. “There is not one of­fi­cial front to pho­to­graph, so these sculp­tures in­vite peo­ple to take their own pic­tures,” he says, “and de­pend­ing on where they stand, they have a dif­fer­ent pic­ture”. Am­a­teur vis­i­tor pho­to­graphs can even be­come an­other cri­te­ria for judg­ing the suc­cess of an art­work, Delvoye re­marks: “If rich peo­ple buy it for how­ever much— that’s one cri­te­ria used of­ten in the press, but there’s a lot of other cri­te­ria like Google or In­sta­gram, very in­ter­est­ing cri­te­ria which don’t have a lot to do with money. Then it’s more to do with the crowd than with cap­i­tal.”

Delvoye’s work took a de­cid­edly bi­o­log­i­cal turn in the late nineties with his Cloaca pro­ject—which he still con­sid­ers to be his most im­por­tant work. The Cloaca— Latin for ‘sewer’ or ‘toi­let’— is a large scale, ar­ti­fi­cial model of di­ges­tion that per­forms the phys­i­cal and chem­i­cal labour of trans­form­ing food into fae­ces. When in­stalled in an ex­hi­bi­tion space, the Cloaca ma­chines are fed with fresh sus­te­nance daily. Sim­u­lated me­chan­i­cal mas­ti­ca­tion then pre­pares the food for its en­counter with stom­ach-like acids, fol­lowed by the in­tro­duc­tion of in­testi­nal bac­te­ria and fi­nally de­hy­dra­tion in prepa­ra­tion for ex­cre­tion. Im­i­tat­ing the di­ges­tive stages of the hu­man stom­ach and in­testines, the process pro­duces unique, oc­ca­sion­ally op­pres­sive odours into the gallery space in which it is sited. Fes­ter­ing, sludge like residues are slowly built up on the once pris­tine or­gans of the ap­pa­ra­tus, even­tu­ally pro­duc­ing a small de­posit of some­thing that closely re­sem­bles real hu­man fae­ces.

In reimag­in­ing this ob­scure and ab­ject process as an ex­ter­nalised cul­tural spec­ta­cle, Delvoye has ex­ag­ger­ated the dy­nam­ics of de­sire and val­ori­sa­tion that un­der­pin the art mar­ket. Here, even lit­eral ‘shit’ can be­come a pre­cious art ob­ject—mir­ror­ing the al­chem­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated ge­o­log­i­cal base mat­ter into re­fined gold. Some col­lec­tors have man­aged to ac­quire their own Cloaca pro­duced spec­i­men, pre­served within its own branded vac­uum sealed plas­tic bag, for a princely sum of US $1,000.

“Even the old Ro­mans had proverbs and jokes where money was al­ways re­lated to shit,” says Delvoye, “and some­how it’s the first money you give to your mother. Your mother takes care of you and you pay some­thing back to her with ex­cre­ment. The first eco­nomic trans­ac­tion, for your food, you are pay­ing with shit to your mother. Your mother seems to be very happy and even strokes your butt— as soon as you shit you get this re­ward, butt stroking. So it is some­thing that, from early child­hood on­ward, is a con­nec­tion that most peo­ple, in most cul­tures have to one an­other. And money is also very dirty, I mean phys­i­cal money, it is very dirty, peo­ple are touch­ing it, it goes from one per­son to an­other, it’s full of bac­te­ria and it can make you sick.”

Like the hu­man or­gan­ism it im­i­tates, Delvoye’s Cloaca has also evolved, un­der­go­ing nu­mer­ous per­mu­ta­tions and re­fine­ments over time. The ear­li­est ver­sions ap­peared as a hor­i­zon­tal se­ries of cylin­dri­cal glass tanks linked by tubes, with each tank per­form­ing a sin­gle func­tion. Later ver­sions of the Cloaca be­gan to mir­ror the ver­ti­cal­ity of the hu­man form, which el­e­vates the pro­ducer above their ab­ject prod­uct. In one ver­sion there are three wash­ing ma­chines, stacked on top of each other with a mouth and an anus crown­ing each end in turn. This move, to­ward the use of opaque mech­a­nised ob­jects in place of the trans­par­ent glass tanks, might also be read as a de­sire to con­ceal the ac­quired shame of the or­gan­ism’s nat­u­ral func­tion.

By blur­ring the lines be­tween the ex­hi­bi­tion plinth and the toi­let, Delvoye has up­dated the ready made tech­nique ex­em­pli­fied by Duchamp’s 1917 Foun­tain uri­nal, in­vest­ing it with the anx­i­eties and quan­daries of con­tem­po­rary sci­en­tific pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. At a pub­lic un­veil­ing of a Cloaca at Casino Lux­em­bourg in 2007, an au­di­ence mem­ber asked if any of the methane gas was be­ing har­vested for its ca­pac­ity as a bio­fuel. “No, it all goes to waste,” re­sponded Delvoye with glee. In a utopian sense, the Cloaca can­not be un­der­stood as an at­tempt to fi­nesse or re­fine mod­els of con­sump­tion, but merely as con­sump­tion of these mod­els in its own right.

While some artists con­sider their role to be a con­duit for us to un­der­stand the hu­man con­di­tion, Delvoye’s di­ges­tive prac­tice, in con­trast, erodes the sup­posed sovereignty of the artist along with the artist’s gaze. This re­con­sid­er­a­tion of the role of the artist, leaves us with no hard and fast de­lin­eation be­tween ab­jec­tion and the rar­efied gold of artis­tic pro­duc­tion. An art­work like that of Delvoye’s Cloaca, can pro­duce only vari­a­tions upon that which it eats. Art is not a sov­er­eign or­gan of pro­duc­tion; rather it rep­re­sents a mo­ment within an end­lessly spi­ralling process of con­sump­tion, di­ges­tion and ex­cre­tion.

Delvoye’s en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion with the dy­namic power of the spi­ral harks back to the art of the Baroque, where ex­ag­ger­ated ten­sion and mo­tion were evoked by rep­e­ti­tion, through twists and turns im­bued with ex­u­ber­ance and grandeur. This was an age when spir­i­tual med­i­ta­tion and sci­en­tific method— as di­ver­gent modes of gain­ing knowl­edge about the world— had not yet been de­cou­pled by the West­ern pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ra­tio­nal­ism. Early mod­ern philoso­phers and cos­mol­o­gists en­ter­tained mod­els of the uni­verse based upon closely re­lated sys­tems of mi­cro­cosm and macro­cosm, where il­lus­tra­tive com­par­isons be­tween na­ture and the divine were drawn by in­fer­ence. These pro­jects pro­posed mod­els that be­gan with the per­ceived re­la­tions be­tween the laws of na­ture and the laws of the divine: as above so below.

It was in this mi­lieu, that al­chemists sought the pu­rifi­ca­tion of base mat­ter into gold and the cre­ation of ar­ti­fi­cial life in the form of the ‘hu­mon­cu­lous’. But Delvoye’s ap­pro­pri­a­tion of the dec­o­ra­tive and philo­soph­i­cal tropes of a pre-in­dus­trial age, car­ries dif­fer­ent im­pli­ca­tions where sci­en­tific and the­o­log­i­cal ques­tions con­verge once again, though now in the lab rather than at the al­ter.

Look­ing back on the cir­cum­stances that in­spired the Cloaca in the late 1990s, Delvoye re­calls that “Dolly the [cloned] sheep had just come about and it was in the news­pa­pers a lot. There were all these things about ge­net­ics and our ge­netic codes— it was a spe­cial time.” It was not only an­i­mal ge­net­ics that fas­ci­nated Delvoye around this time, but also mankind’s investigation into it­self, for as Delvoye wist­fully re­minds me, “the hu­man was the first species to de­code its own ge­netic code”.

Ac­cord­ing to Delvoye, there is here, in this sci­en­tific break­through, an im­plicit de­mand for spir­i­tual con­sid­er­a­tion. The labour in the ge­net­ics lab emerges in un­avoid­able par­al­lel with the god like labour of cre­ation. Delvoye’s work with the Cloaca forces a con­fronta­tion with the un­prece­dented po­si­tion of man within the cos­mic or­der— a pro­mo­tion to the po­si­tion of ul­ti­mate cre­ator va­cated by hu­man­ity’s tra­di­tional, folk­loric deities. For Delvoye it is not only that sci­ence has re­placed re­li­gion, but that “art, in a way, has taken the place of re­li­gion”.

Although he did not have a par­tic­u­larly re­li­gious up­bring­ing, Delvoye has main­tained a fas­ci­na­tion with re­li­gious iconog­ra­phy and rit­ual. Hav­ing, he tells me, tried to find his own re­li­gion in South­ern In­dia – a pro­ject that re­mains a work in progress. “I’ve been look­ing around in Ker­ala, there are hun­dreds of re­li­gions there. In­dia is ex­tremely tol­er­ant to­ward very strange re­li­gions— mine would cer­tainly be tol­er­ated,” he as­sures me. “I would do a mix of Dar­win­ism, sci­ence and then for the re­li­gious di­men­sion, I would of course make fun of all other re­li­gions. I would make ref­er­ences to child­hood mem­o­ries, like scenes from Planet of the Apes and The Wizard of Oz, where God was re­vealed as a ma­chine … Maybe one of my Cloaca would be a god.”

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween di­ges­tion, ex­change and ex­pres­sion is again ex­plored in the 2011 se­ries Anal Kisses. For this pro­ject Delvoye in­vited guests in his ho­tel room to ap­ply pink or red lip­stick to their anus and im­press it, as evenly as pos­si­ble, upon ho­tel sta­tionery. “The Anal Kisses are ba­si­cally say­ing the same thing as the Cloaca,” says Delvoye. “You can make a very com­pli­cated ma­chine, or you could just do an anal kiss. It is ba­si­cally the hu­man be­ing in a nut­shell. The two ends of the hu­man be­ing— the re­ceiver and the giver, and the bal­ance be­tween these, and the pipe in be­tween— this is what peo­ple are.”

Con­sid­ered along­side his more os­ten­ta­tious, ex­pen­sive and labour in­ten­sive works, the Anal Kisses ap­pear a shock­ingly suc­cinct artis­tic state­ment. As kisses made by the anus rather than the mouth, they re­call Delvoye’s ear­lier de­scrip­tions of the baby who re­pays its mother with fae­ces, and within this con­text, per­haps the only con­scious that it has to of­fer. Once again, use­less ex­pelled refuse is en­tered into sys­tems of mean­ing-mak­ing and ex­change.

As an amorous and ab­ject sig­na­ture, the anal kiss be­comes a bio­met­ric reg­is­tra­tion of pres­ence, sim­i­lar to a fin­ger­print. The ho­tel sta­tionery be­stows upon each kiss a spe­cific geo­graphic and do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tion. Un­der each Best West­ern or Swis­sô­tel let­ter­head we find the pre­cise ad­dress and front desk tele­phone num­ber— quaint tes­ti­monies to the bar­ri­ers of hu­man con­tact in a prein­ter­net age. This speci­ficity of place al­lows us to trace this scat­o­log­i­cal rit­ual of at­tempted con­tact, as we would a se­ries of let­ters be­tween ge­o­graph­i­cally es­tranged lovers, read­ing the en­coded long­ing in their at­tempts to bridge ab­sence through in­scrip­tions of de­sire.

The pro­duc­tion and rerout­ing of de­sire is in­trin­sic to any un­der­stand­ing of Delvoye’s work as a whole. From the en­dur­ing de­sire for hu­man self un­der­stand­ing, to the el­e­va­tions of the mun­dane into de­sir­able ob­jets d’art; in Delvoye’s world, these cir­cuitries of de­sire are al­ways be­ing ex­posed and remapped. Through spi­ralling, twisted tra­jec­to­ries we are sent from ex­pe­ri­ences of high con­cept, hi-tech fab­ri­ca­tions lead us, back to the quo­tid­ian from which we em­barked. When I ask him what up­com­ing pro­jects he has planned, he an­swers, “I’m work­ing on spud guns”.

Im­age Plates Plate 01. Dump Truck (de­tail), 2013. Laser-cut Corten steel, 360x170x574cm. Gary Tat­intsian Gallery, Rus­sia, 2014. Plate 02. Twisted Dump Truck Coun­ter­clock­wise (scale model 1/4), 2013. Laser-cut stain­less steel, 200x83x95 cm. Gary...

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