|Innards for Arts Sake
Art Press, pp. 30-32
1 March 2002
Just as soon as Wim Delvoye finished putting together his first excrement-making machine, he threw himself into a new series of monumental pieced inspired by church stained-glass windows. A project that continues to unfold the ironic logic of this Belgian artist whose works was shown in Paris, Dusseldorf and New York in early 2002.
Wim Delvoyes works could be thematically grouped in several different ways. For instance, his gas canisters, painted wood cement mixers, floor tiles decorated with turd patterns, ironing boards decked out with heraldic coats of arms and recent stained-glass windows could all be classified as decorative works. This category could also include, as bordering on decorative, his series of tattooed pigs, unless one chose to construe another thematic group around these porkers for example, the concept of abasement, a genera that would include all his work dealing with anality, excrement, infection and filth, from his celebrated human shit-producing machine (Cloaca, 2000) to his magnificent and joyous video showing very tight close-ups of bursting blackheads (Sybille, 1999). But this ensemble of abjectionist works (which would also include his 1990 decorated flooring) could also be said to contain the core of another grouping, those pieces dealing with organic issues, for instance, or sexuality, while the other pole, the grouping of objects relating to science and cutting-edge technology, could once again include the shit machine, the stained glass with their x-ray and the inlaying of intimate messages amid grand mountain landscapes. In other words, the flowchart of Delvoyes work forms a dense network with many ramifications. His pieces come together, branch out and combine with one another to create new subcategories. Each new piece attracts and reactivates the oldest in an arborescent oeuvre continuously driven forward by its own specific internal development. Take the Chapel series, a dozen monumental works inspired by church stained-glass windows subtitled January through December. Delvoyes interest in such expressions at the cross-roads of elite and mass culture, heavily laden with kitsch, is immediately recognizable. After the magnificent Cloaca (followed by Cloaca New and Improved) capped off a typical avant-garde branch of development, the stained-glass pieces mark and ironic repositioning in the high (and especially Flemish) tradition so often revisited with false nostalgia by this artist. For instance, there were his early-1990s colored-glass goalposts decorated with medieval scenes made with the assistance of master glass-makers of the kind rather rare in Europe today. From a certain point of view, in fact, these stained-glass pieces pursue a cherished Delvoye formula consisting of using culturally-valorized media, iconography and traditional procedures to produce representations and discourses rooted in todays most prosaic reality, whether it be a popular sport like soccer, Hells Angels tattoos or construction-site machinery. But these pieces resemble stained glass only in their appearance. They are more like a sandwich, with two sheets of glass holding x-ray images of various parts of human and animal bodies. This work is very clearly linked to Cloaca and Delvoyes fascination with interiority in the sense of guts. It manifests what weve already seen in a disguised, scatological form, and reaffirms the connections between art (including his) and our desire to see and enlarge our visual field.
THE CROSSING OF APPEARANCES
While Delvoyes machine may recall the Large Glass, especially in regard to the time spent on making it, in formal terms it is of course his stained glass work that is most redolent of that famous piece. The transparency that makes Duchamps unfinished artwork so open is naturally a fundamental characteristic of Delvoyes medium here. But stained glass is not just a window. For the Church, it symbolizes the Virgin Mary, both sexually opened, as a mother, and closed, as a virgin. A penetrable body, stained glass allows the spirit to soar toward the light, but as a narrative space it is a wall, a screen onto which is projected the social and political history of the community, a mirror that, far better than any other reflecting surface, casts back to the faithful the images of who they are, what they fear and hope. And what is an x-ray if not the equivalent, in this time of hyperbolic medical technology, of the mirror that pierces appearances and puts each of us face to face with ourselves?
X-rays push back the limits of perception and make nudity all the more naked. Truth today would not be represented by a nude woman emerging from the depths but by the scanned image of an embryo curled up in a uterus, a mammogram, or an x-ray of a tooth or an intestine. After filming a close-up of his beloved slowing being invaded by zits swarming like maggots across her face; after reproducing in a laboratory, for the first time anywhere, with the aid of a team of medical personnel, a human digestive system capable of functioning perfectly; after having exhibition invitations printed up with an echogram of his unborn son (2001); after making a Cibachrome version of x-rays of various banal blow jobs, all in the documentary style of the Discovery Channel, now Delvoye is revisiting, thanks to the advance of modern science and technology with which he is fascinated, the time-honored history of stained glass, just as he recently revisited, with his Marble Floor and his cement mixers, the thoroughly uncontemporary history of marquetry and the no less anachronistic craft of wood sculpture.
Taking the educational function of stained glass seriously, the artist calls our attention to our inner life by creating decorative motifs composed of fragments (either repeated, Warhol-style, or put end to end like in a game of snakes and ladders) of digestive tubes, skulls, colons and copulation by men, women, children and pigs. The idea of a game, always very much a part of Delvoyes work, finds expression through the counter-intuitive association of the decorative and the medical in a way that also refers to the nexus between the religious and the sexual that lies at the core of so much erotic literature. Half perverted priest and half mad scientist, he is also a little boy with a penchant for playing doctor who finds himself alone in an x-ray room. What else could lie behind his representations of flowers done with pieces of intestines, if not a need to play, or in other words, to fit different thoughts together?
But the gates of playfulness, like those of thought, can open onto an abyss. In the same way that by thrusting before us the similarities between living beings (especially of the human variety) and mechanics a work as perfectly useless as Cloaca brings up once again the inexhaustible question of the definition of life, so his stained glass brings out the edifying spectacle of our unbearable lightness, of our dreams of becoming, by throwing a harsh light on sequenced images, outlined in black, of our upcoming dematerialization.
What remains, in an x-ray image, a kind of improved photo, of the being of the flesh? And what remains, without the flesh, of sexuality, of the famous sins of the flesh? Not much, obviously. Today we dont need any doctors of divinity to take the measure of our destiny. All it takes is a guy in a white coat brandishing under our eyes the phantom of a kidney or an intestine to suddenly render all the religious texts on earth perfectly clear. In light of this project, Delvoyes guiding principle almost goes without saying: the deeper an artwork looks into the physical, the greater its metaphysical impact. Underlying this work, presented as an exclusively scatological proposition there is, in fact, a far more polite (or polished) reflection, a deeply eschatological meditation.
- Catherine Francblin