PRINT Summer 1991


IN DESIGN AND FASHION as in war, to apply camouflage and makeup to an object or living body is to put its identity in play. There is an ambiguity: the thing is confused with its context, and attention is deflected from its true character. A clothed or made-up body can confuse the distinction between the sexes, just as a wrapped or painted object can become indecipherable, can deceive one as to its nature. Made up or masked, the man becomes a mannequin and the object becomes a machine. The female and the male, the technological and the natural, the functional and the decorative, abandon their separateness for a multiple existence in which all these qualities intermingle.

This fluctuation of identity produces a hermaphroditism of signs, a play of equivalency between parts, each lost in and opening up to the other. The encounter tends, then, toward the erotic, toward a reciprocal attraction and seduction. It is admittedly harder to speak of the erotic everyday object than of the erotic body. Yet the immense machinery of spectacle and consumption has slowly accustomed us to finding imaginary, playful, and perverse affinities throughout the visual world, and the everyday object has hardly been exempted from this erotic procedure. Seductively disguised, it is glimpsed through transparent packaging, or cloaked in the fashionable colors of the moment. Thus its skin has become a medium of sensual contact and of informational exchange. The everyday object has learned to communicate, to insinuate all the erotic possibilities that can be wrung from the play between nakedness and concealment.

It is on this epidermal perimeter that the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye weaves his relationships—enticing and disturbing, ironic and serious—between painting and sculpture, between object and popular icon. He paints the skins of things, covering up, amplifying, disguising, and transforming the object with images, colors, and words. The result is a doubled, ambivalent entity. Both the object and the painting laid over it are simultaneously concealed and rediscovered, each creating a desire for the other.

This will for exchange between painting and sculpture, surface and volume, image and object, has appeared repeatedly in the art of the last thirty years—in the pictorial cannibalism of Jasper Johns, Yves Klein, and Piero Manzoni, for example, where the universe of objects is devoured by the process of painting, or by a color (blue), or by a noncolor (the achrome). Younger artists too are mining the same vein—Bertrand Lavier, say, as well as Delvoye. The degree of amorous exchange varies in all this work, ranging from respect to suffocation. In the ’60s pieces, color tends to devour, completely to annul, the object or body of desire. Numbers and letters, maps and sponges, stones and rolls are “drowned” in paint. In the process, they undergo a transubstantiation, a metamorphosis: they are transformed into esthetic, spiritual, or bodily matter, lost in color or in the absence of color. With Lavier and Delvoye, on the other hand, the object is treated more respectfully and less appropriatively. It is set in dialogue with the skin of paint that embraces it so intimately. Delvoye’s work in particular tends to establish a parallel flow of difference, with both the objects and the images applied to them retaining all their individual energy, each, in fact, virtually reinforcing the other.

In one group of works Delvoye brings out the hypnotic power of a popular kitsch iconography, that of Delft china, an imagery itself already skinlike in that even in its original form it is a shallow veneer on the surface of an everyday plate or cup. In this iconography Delvoye finds the primary pleasure of the pictorial process, but instead of applying it to soft canvas, which would associate it with an elevated place in art history, he wraps it around everyday objects—butane gas tanks, for example (“Delftse Butaangasflessen,” 1986–90), or the blades of a circular saw (“Delftse Circelzagen,” 1988–90). The assertive physicality of these objects is ineradicable, so that although they are covered by painted images in pretty Delft blue, their essential crudity and even violence always show through.

The work is a subtle game of deception, of visual capture and perversion. From a distance, one’s gaze fastens first on the chinaware’s popular iconography of sailboats and windmills, particularly when the objects are shown in a group, or in old-fashioned display cases (“Jakarta Cabinetten,” 1988). It is a pleasure to recognize these friendly familiar images. Then, as one draws closer, the lure of fascination is revealed as a trap, and Delvoye’s objects disclose their aggressive, dangerous nature. One’s desire to see, one’s relaxed pleasure in seeing, are turned against themselves. Once sprung, the trap cuts deeply into the viewer’s certainties and into the certainties of seeing. Yet the only trick lies in one’s own habits and visual expectations. And so the veils and mimetic layers of camouflage and makeup paradoxically lay bare one’s reassuring visual obsessions, which constantly call to be gratified but are in the end simply functions of mass taste.

If disguise or the provision of pictures boosts the object’s prestige, then Delvoye’s painting, besides being perceptually diverting, is a pretense at nobility. Through mimesis—which is rooted in magic as well as in art—a thing is given value, masked here, exalted there, to rise in the universe of the chosen. In this sense Delvoye’s works have a heraldic element—they are a kind of proclamation of aristocracy. The claim is made explicit in the “Heraldische Strijkplanken” series (Heraldic ironing boards, 1988–90), which transforms ironing boards into coats of arms, beginning with animals such as the Flemish lion, then moving on to more abstract and symbolic, less local heraldic devices. Here, too, iconography works to produce a hybrid, to make everyday banality refer to legend or myth.

Besides addressing the chameleonlike dimension of common objects through painting, Delvoye is also interested in drawing. In his “Cartografische Schilderijen” (Cartographic paintings, 1988–), he destructures Earth’s landmasses to create metamorphic maps of countries shaped like a pipe, a hammer and nail, a saw, a bell, eyeglasses, and human or animal bones and genitals. The fabulous geography that emerges passes beyond our concrete, limited knowledge of the world. This surprising nature, these “malformations” or polymorphs, relate to the same idea of hermaphroditism among beings and things that is suggested in Delvoye’s work with objects. For every piece seems the result of a double insemination. The copresence of male and female, of the technical and the imaginary, appears through borders and coastlines that are at the same time objective and conceptual, fantastic and organic. This is the same kind of dynamic as the osmosis between industrial container and decor, between function and frivolity, in the “Delftse Butaangasflessen” pieces. One might speak here of an art of excess, where paintings are transformed into objects and objects into chromatic epiphanies.

Yet Delvoye seems to be aiming for a vague sort of hermaphroditism, even a vulgar one (from vulgus, Latin for “the people”), as if to repudiate 20th-century avant-garde art’s lofty claims of its own worth. “Soccergoals,” 1989–91, is a series of works that show both sacred and profane art as a frenzied ritual, no better than the mass spectacles of the professional football field—a metaphor for the museum and the gallery, where the only goal seems to be to score a goal, financially speaking. Each work is a soccer goal made not in wood and net but in Gothic-style stained glass. The series refers, then, to the church windows that literally “enlighten” the masses. Mixing the banal and the profane, these works examine the characteristics of the spectacle, and of the public transmission of the qualities of fullness and emptiness, the ceremonial and the charismatic, inherent in most religious ideology. In Panem et Circenses (Bread and circuses, 1989–90), the image in the stained glass shows a medieval bakery shop, but inevitably recalls modern advertising for bread and cookies, with its emphasis on both freshness and the antiquity of the baking tradition. The style of the image also refers to Bruegel, and to the flat style of Flemish genre painting. Rather cruelly, then, the somewhat artsy “Soccergoals” tell the story of art’s passage toward kitsch. Yet they are ironically fragile, visually delicate vessels for that particular story—their actual use in the game for which they are designed would shatter them into fragments. And two of them illustrate the biblical tale of Saint Stephen, who was stoned to death by the mob. These images emphasize the theme of the crowd grown fierce and powerful, the great invisible protagonist in all the “Soccergoals.”

Surely the artist hides not only irony but also a moral charge in all these works. He seems to suggest that art is cannibalistic, and can turn its cannibalism both on itself and on the viewer, both on the sublime and on the vulgar. At the same time, the “Soccergoals” reveal the crowd’s desire to devour the art (because it is increasingly boring and crude?). There is an ingenious tension in these pieces: the goalposts practically demand to have a football kicked at them, but to obey would destroy them. And in a sense they are already in pieces—pieced together out of shards of colored glass. These are not cohesive objects, then, but obsessively project a sense of a body in fragments. They refer to a drama of identity, in art and in the artist.

Senza titolo (Untitled, 1990) is an installation of a large painting—a female bust, complete with pearls and an Elizabethan ruff, but with the head of a cat—and about 600 miniature rocking chairs, made from clothespins and ordered in columns like an army. The theme of the two-faced but seductive use of art appears here too, in the pseudo-antique painting, a hand-painted oil by Delvoye, treated with craquelure-prone varnish for a false historical patina. Tall, vertical, and ritually central in the overall arrangement, the painting dominates the scene, asserting its power over the absent acolytes in their low rockers. This may be a captive audience, and its ruler a ridiculous one, but the seats are comfortable—or at least rocking chairs are comfortable, though these particular examples may not be. The work describes another ritual of adoration, and links together the soccer match, the large-scale exhibition, and the mass sanctuary of Lourdes, or Woodstock, or SoHo.

In Library, 1990, a series of proverbs is painted on the surfaces of handsaws that hang in rows inside a wooden frame. The model for this structure is the gallows fork, an apparatus used by the French royalty and aristocracy in Montfaucon, near Paris, to send large numbers of guilty or unlucky souls to their deaths at the same time. By royal decree, the king could have an unlimited number of victims hanged, a duke could nominate eight, a count six, a baron four. But Delvoye hangs saws, and paints their surfaces with commonplace proverbs that signify little but the perpetuation of everyday language drained of any meaningful force. First things first. The absent are always in the wrong. Never too late to learn. Lucky at cards, unlucky in love. In sentences like these, language loses its referential strength and becomes a simple typographic and chromatic figure, a crude product of communication. The lettering, in a pseudo-ancient script inspired by the German black letter style, adds to the feeling that the sentiments in these proverbs are vacuous and trite. Yet vacuity like this is deadly, literally so, as the gallows image makes clear. The victims of hanging are equally the victims of conceptual banality. When significant and insignificant, noble and trivial, are all the same, any play of significance whatsoever becomes blurred.

This liberation or neutralization of codes is of the same order as the equilibrium between painting and sculpture, between male and female, between the objective and the iconic, that Delvoye establishes in his painted gas tanks. Dressing up to expose, disguising to reveal, he reinvents an attraction and an eroticism between the work’s different parts. Here differences don’t matter, but coexist, to be sublimated in a state of being and in being “different.”

Germano Celant is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.