Wim Delvoye

Middleheim Museum

If there can be said to be such a thing as a Belgian attitude in art, Wim Delvoye embodies it perfectly: without becoming anecdotal or regional, his work addresses things that are rotten in the state of Belgium. Delvoye transforms the surrounding environment into a sardonic fairy tale, endowing familiar objects (such as ironing boards, tennis rackets, carpets), and clichés or obsolete proverbs (like “home sweet home”) with an entirely new identity.

His latest exhibition was his most extreme so far; in fact, it triggered a polemical discussion about the ethical aspects of his artmaking, as well as of contemporary art in general. In a piece about the colonization of nature through culture, he tattooed four pigs with designs and walked them around the museum like living readymades. Anticipating criticism that might be directed toward this work by animal rights activists, Delvoye took careful measures to ensure the welfare of the animals. He raised the pigs by hand, gave them veterinary care, and arranged for them to be given anesthesia when the tattoos were made. In addition, anyone who wants to purchase this “installation” has to buy the animals in a group so they won’t be separated. The ethical question is not surprising but rather irrelevant (considering that the pigs would probably prefer to be cherished as art than made into bacon). More important, the result provoked absurd and beautifully surreal art. Strangely enough, these pigs seemed less exploited than the ones shown in the Carsten Höller/Rosemarie Trockel Ein Haus für Schweine und Menschen (A house for pigs and men, 1997), which was shown at Documenta X, probably because of the all-too-obvious social message of the Höller/Trockel piece.

Seven wooden “nesting boxes,” which were covered with S/M outfits and suspended in trees outside the museum, suggested a similar metaphor. The ultimate effect, however, was even more shocking, as the sparrows flew in and out of apertures in the leather costumes. Delvoye explored nature itself in another work, a large computer-manipulated landscape. In the past he has presented numerous photographs of idyllic, even overwhelmingly immaculate natural environments superimposed with trivial messages. Here, an image of a mountainous area in Spain was accompanied with text reading “For Johan, the bell is broken, please knock hard.”

In Belgium Delvoye is often either regarded as a charlatan or respected for all the wrong reasons. However, like René Magritte and Marcel Broodthaers—two other notorious “charlatans”—his attitude may be jocular, but his work is filled with subversive poetry. Rather than a politically correct rebel, Delvoye chooses to be a tender anarchist.

Jos Van den Bergh