Wim Delvoye

Judging from his retrospective exhibition—the first of a new series at the Centro Pecci, now directed by Daniel Soutif—the lure of the scatological has gained the upper hand in Wim Delvoye’s recent work. Yes, the show also contained works from the ’80s and ’90s, all based on paradox: soccer goalposts made using ancient stained-glass techniques (Goals, 1989–92) and just waiting for the first irreverent kick to shatter them; Gas Canisters, 1988–89, decorated in the style of Delft porcelain; and the baroque Concrete Mixers, 1990–92. But this all seemed to be mere prologue, constituting the childhood of an artist who today has finally come into his maturity and out in the open with his obsession with bodily fluids and residues—and, in particular, with shit. Indeed, the exhibition revolved around the large Cloaca Turbo (Sewer Turbine), 2003, a complex mechanical- chemical-electronic mechanism that reproduces the human cycle of eating, digestion, and excretion. It is a perfected variation on two previous machines that had the same goal. This work was so forcefully present—nourished at regular intervals, with a menu that is preestablished and a delivery schedule punctually met by a caterer—that every other work in the show had perforce to refer to it, however tangentially. The marble inlays of the geometric floor decorations were replaced by slices of cold cuts of various kinds—just another crude allusion (as were the tattooed skins of flayed pigs) to the digestive processes that end, of course, in excretion. Not to mention “Anal Kisses,” 1999–2000, marks left by a lipsticked asshole. These and other works here seemed but a dissimulated and even poetic sketch of that primary human activity, the production of shit.

Strangely, one is not really tempted to categorize this oeuvre with reference to Freud’s notion of the “anal phase” of a child (and therefore of the artist, who has assumed that role). Nor is one tempted to bring up the idea of social provocation or images of conformity, consumerism, or even allegories for current art. On the contrary, all references reenter the flow of the most elevated language of art history. It is no accident, for example, that writing about Delvoye’s work is crammed with references to Flemish and Dutch old-master painting, from Bosch to Rembrandt, or to the magical world of eighteenth-century automatons. And in fact, Delvoye’s work seems to be a conscious continuation of that tradition rather than a clinical case of scatological obsession. Within the history of images there is an expressive line tied to the “low” world of bodily fluids, in contrast to the celestial realm of ideas. It is a visual world whose metaphors continually point to the immense contrast between material and idea, body and soul. It is a world where shit is tautologically shit, before being a metaphorical image, and where this pertains not to the individual or social sphere—understood as criticism, struggle, or denunciation—but to a much more primal, peasant, collective ritual, as primordial as manure on the fields, as vital as the stink of shit.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore