Wim Delvoye

Art/Artists 2008. 1. 21. 19:20
This little critic went to market
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 27/11/2005

The film-maker Ben Lewis and a herd of Chinese pigs have one thing in common – a tattoo by the conceptual artist Wim Delvoye. So how much are they – and his shoulder – worth?

Earlier this year I acquired a tattoo. It's on the back of my right shoulder and it shows Mickey Mouse on a crucifix with Minnie weeping at the base. It's signed 'Wim Delvoye'. Somewhere on a tiny farmstead on the outskirts of Beijing in China there's a pig running around with exactly the same tattoo, also signed 'Wim Delvoye'. That's because the pig and I got tattooed at the same time, and in the same room, by the same artist.

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A tattooed Ben Lewis

I had been making a short film about Delvoye for my BBC4 series, Art Safari. The tattoo was the climax, but I first met the artist at his studio in his home town of Gent, where he was putting the finishing touches to his notorious Cloaca, a reproduction of the human digestive system. It consists of a waste disposal unit at one end (the mouth), a washing machine in the middle full of digestion enzymes (the stomach), and a kind of drying unit at the other end (the sphincter). You put food in at the top (the day that I dined with the machine we ate tuna sashimi, and Belgian chocolates, washed down with a light Chablis) … and guess what comes out of the bottom? The 'products' are sun-dried and sold as works of art in Perspex boxes, at about £2,000 per poop.

This is, of course, silly art: Delvoye's work satirises the art world, with its inflated prices and daft intellectual cul-de-sacs. Cloaca makes the ultimate criticism of modern art - that most of it is crap; that the art world has finally disappeared up its own backside. 'When I was going to art school, all my family said I was wasting my time, and now I have made a work of art about waste,' he told me happily.

Wim Delvoye is a 40-year-old Belgian artist who has been on the margins of the contemporary art premier league for about a decade. He began with a set of gas canisters, meticulously reproduced in the style of the white and blue Delft porcelain. He then established relations with craftsmen from Indonesia, whom he persuaded to sculpt ornate wooden concrete mixers, whose baroque foliage was finished off with gold leaf. Such ambiguous artworks are both a way of ennobling the everyday, and a merciless mockery of the values of art.

Delvoye drove me from his studio to see his latest large-scale work in progress. We parked up by a big shed on an industrial estate. Inside, two workmen were laser-cutting metal panels for model bulldozers and tipper trucks in the style of high European gothic. Delvoye had photographed numerous stained-glass windows, then worked the images into a model of a construction vehicle, in which every panel was decorated with Gothic motifs. It's a very contemporary way of working, using available objects and styles, colliding past and present, technology and craftsmen, that has a much simpler British counterpart in Marc Quinn's sculpture of Alison Lapper in Trafalgar Square.

Wim and I gazed at his new work. 'It's social realism, a tribute to the working class,' Wim told me. 'First we had the Iron Age, then the Bronze Age and now we are coming to the end of the Concrete Age. It's like saying goodbye to the 20th century.'

These trucks are scale models. Delvoye will one day make life-size working vehicles in this style. That's important. The artist is no longer likely to paint from, copy, interpret or be critical of the world around him - something that links Michelangelo, Picasso and Warhol. In the future, the work of art will enter into the real world.

This is where the pigs come in. Delvoye has a project in China that puts this 'real world' idea into practice: he invited me to visit a small farmstead outside Beijing where he keeps 24 prime pigs, tended carefully by local villagers. Every animal is tattooed. Once a week he puts them under a mild anaesthetic and etches into their skin anything from Russian prison tattoos to Disney princesses to the Louis Vuitton logo. When one of these works of art is finished, the pig is slaughtered, the skin is preserved, stretched and sold for around £35,000. It's another wonderfully ambiguous work of art which appears to save pigs from the anonymity and industrialised death of factory farming, only to replace it with a new kind of sadistic, artistic cruelty. It's difficult to tell if the message is one that ridicules human beings for the coolness of body decoration, or appeals to us to stop seeing animals as a food source.

I sought the answer to that question in my programme. I detest the way most art programmes take a fawning approach to their subject, when most contemporary art is so weak. I will go to any lengths to find out if art means something. Just talking to the artist and looking at the work is never enough. The artists are usually inarticulate, or English is their second language, or they're just not very bright. None of these criticisms was true of Delvoye - but his art was so ambiguous it was impossible to work out what it meant. Was it raising up the lowly, or humbling the mighty? Was it optimistic or cynical? Even the artist couldn't decide. He told me that 'the act of tattooing reveals the vanity of human beings. You're imagining yourself as a rock 'n' roll star so you want to express that on your body, then you put it on a pig and your belief system becomes ridiculous.'

I have, with most contemporary art, a lack of confidence in my own judgment. I am always worried that art that I think is good, like Delvoye's, might not be, and so I like to think up a means of testing the work. That's why I got tattooed.

Did I like it enough to acquire it permanently in my collection? Yes! For two-and-a-half hours I lay side by side with a pig, while we both received the same tattoo. It's a beautiful drawing with highlights in white and red. As a Jew, I delighted in the ambiguous cultural clash this image of Mickey Mouse on a crucifix represented - it was a Jewish joke about Christianity and at the same time an unforgivable contravention of Jewish law, since Jews with tattoos don't go to heaven. But, looking at it a week later in the bathroom mirror, when the scars had healed, I still couldn't make up my mind whether Delvoye was satirising human vanity, or aestheticising pigs.

I booked an appointment for a valuation with Francis Outred, a specialist in contemporary art at Sotheby's. There I found my answer. The auctioneer refused my request to auction a deed to my skin, a sort of futures option on a work of art. He said that he couldn't tell how much wear-and-tear my artwork would suffer in my lifetime. He also said, disappointingly, that he couldn't put a value on my artwork. At any rate, I was worth much less than Delvoye's taxidermised stuffed pigs, one of which had once made £20,000 at auction.

That's when I finally understood what Delvoye's work really meant: he had made a pig more valuable than a TV presenter. That's what I call great art.