Vim and Vigour

An Interview With Wim Delvoye

WIM DELVOYE IS A MASTER OF THE IN-BETWEEN. For 20 years he has been making art that is (at least) two things at once, and in the process has produced a body of work that is uncompromisingly witty and irascible. There is, in his attitude towards art, a sense of intelligent impishness that shows no evident constraints. Whether he is supervising the production of tattooed pigs, combining gas canisters with Delft patterning, or turning ironing boards into heraldic emblems, Delvoye is always making connections between things that have no apparent relationship prior to his aesthetic hybridizing. So he combines the structure of a soccer goal with the decorated material of stained glass windows; or he makes a patterned floor out of hundreds of pieces of deli meat. The art that results from both these combinations is splendid, as is our sense of surprise when we understand the exact nature of his grafting. What is equally delightful is recognizing the absurdity of the relationship between the material these things are made from and the original function of the things from which they are modelled. What would be the effect of kicking a soccer ball into a net made of glass; how long would a marble floor comprised of slices of meat actually last; what could a life-sized cement truck carved out of teak wood carry? The discrepancy between the form of these things and the impossibility of fulfilling the function promised by that form is where Delvoye gets much of his aesthetic charge.

Caterpillar #5, 2002, laser-cut corten steel, 350 x 900 x 300cm. Collection: AWZ, Belgium.

His interest is to capture the moment when identities shift and when meanings displace one another. He wants to register the before and after of these transformations, and his objects carry with them the range of whatever recombinant process is involved in making one thing become another. Do we read his gas canisters as functional or aesthetic objects; are his heraldic ironing boards domestic tribute or deflationary irony? Similarly, what is our reaction to the radical shift in scale that produces the Caterpillars—his cross between heavy equipment and gothic cathedrals?

The question for Delvoye is invariably a measure of limitations, of lines drawn and of thresholds crossed. So he asks in making his carved cement mixers, “How far can you go in doing it in wood, and is it still a concrete mixer if you do it in that material?” The question is posed as much to the viewer as it is to the maker and in this case, the answer is relatively easy. The cement mixer is a perfect, unworkable tool; it couldn’t be better and it can’t be taken further.

Delvoye is involved in a way of making art that reorients our understanding of how beauty can be created. I can think of few contemporary artists who have pushed more thoroughly into an area of aesthetics that employs, to use his own term, “deviant elements.” His art is uncompromisingly about the body and, more particularly, about the body’s points of entry—the anus, the skin, the mouth. His Lipstick Prints, 1999–2000, are deceptively endearing; what we see are lipstick imprints on sheets of stationery from European hotels, the sort of memento a woman would send her lover, a wish-you-were-here intimate communication. What complicates that reading of the work is that the part of the body pressing lipstick to paper is not a mouth, but an anus. The question the viewer is then obliged to ask is, how does that knowledge alter my reading of the work?

Cloaca Drawing, drawing #40, 2004, pencil marker on paper, 75 x 55cm.

Similarly, in Sybille II, a film from 1999, Delvoye again creates a work of art that confounds our conventional notion of what constitutes the beautiful. The film shows a series of sequences in which various forms, invariably in tones of white and ivory, seem to emerge from nowhere in a delicately cross-stitched landscape. These apparent creatures are mesmerizing, as they weave about in a space the viewer can’t initially locate. At a certain point (it took me a number of minutes) you realize that you’re not seeing exotic, underwater life, but extreme close-up views of people squeezing blackheads. The dancing forms are filaments of pus released from under the skin, and their explosive appearance in the frame suddenly reads as grotesque and not pleasing. “I want to portray human beings as a kind of organic living being, that’s what they are actually, an organism,” Delvoye has said, and a number of his pieces use a scatalogical frame to articulate that organic nature. In a sculptural installation called Rose des Vents, 1992, Delvoye had the gallery goer look through a telescope that coincides with the placement of the anus on the bronze sculpture, through which he is able to see the stars with the aid of a lens projecting out of the male figure’s mouth. The view and the act remind us that Delvoye is an aficionado of Peter Sloterdijk, the philolsopher of the outside-in, a thinker more in tune with Bakhtin than Baudrillard. To be sure, Delvoye employs an identical methodology, an approach that explains his attraction to the idea of the viral. A virus is an strain that invades the inside from the outside, and from that position effects significant and sometimes profound transformations.

Delvoye is after nothing less. His masterwork is Cloaca, his “lavatory-laboratory,” the machine that duplicates the human digestive system and produces at the end, just as all of us do, shit. The fact that Cloaca is a machine that duplicates a human process is a fabulous irony that confuses the mechanical and the human. Delvoye is involved in confusing other notions as well; through his pig farm in Bejing he is raising and tattooing pigs that move from commodity status to art status in a very short time.

Cloaca Drawing, drawing #4, 2000-2002, pencil marker on paper, 75 x 55cm.

It is not much of a stretch to see his practice as one that involves manufacturing dissent. As he says about his pigs, each one is “an art piece that pisses and shits and makes a lot of trouble in the system.” Delvoye has taken a lesson from his pigs, at least to the extent that he, too, makes a lot of trouble in the system. Thanks to his machinations, the system his art has produced is immaculate in his deflections.

Wim Delvoye was interviewed by telephone in August 2005.

WIM DELVOYE: We set up and organized our Beijing farm very quickly. Now we have a few tattooists and a veterinary doctor. This year we have a larger farm—we have 24 pigs, not all of them are completely finished—and we’ve had lots of journalists paying attention to what we’re doing. Even Reuters came. This local attention motivated us to see the farm more as a living concept, an installation that could be visited—more than the production centre we had originally intended it to be.

BORDER CROSSINGS: Will they ultimately be annointed to be art pigs as opposed to just butchered pigs?

WD: We make art that’s unsellable, but it grows and it shows, in an ironic way, how investment works. Like the economic principles of Adam Smith: the idea of how capital operates with interest and yields and margins.

BC: If an art collector or a gallery wanted a pig, are they obliged to look after it from the time the tattoo is finished, or do you look after the pig and when it dies you send them the skin itself?

WD: We’re not in a rush to kill them. We film them and they’re always more interesting when they’re alive because that border between art and life—the friction and the oscillation between the two—is what interests me as an artist. The museum director, or whoever is in charge of the exhibition, has to take over the passports of the pigs, their transport documents, vaccination certificates, as if he were its foster parent, with all the legal requirements involved. I was fascinated by the bureaucratic problems these art pieces caused because they’re alive: there’s restrictions on the transport, the museum has to approve, health inspection comes in, animal rights. If I’d painted them there wouldn’t have been a problem. Somehow the art piece constantly refused to be an art piece because it was alive.

BC: Robert Rauschenberg’s famous statement was that he was working in the gap between art and life. You also seem to be interested in that interstitial area.

Anal Kiss A15, 1999, lipstick on hotel stationary, 53 x 44cm.

WD: I like Raushenberg’s theatre decor a lot, where he placed light bulbs on turtles and let them slowly move on the scene. I’ve never seen a picture but, as with lots of my stuff, it’s a strong enough image that you recreate the image every time you hear about it. If you are a visual person you can completely imagine how it must have looked.

BC: He also did bodyprints on photographic paper, which make me think of your x-rays, although your subject matter is decidedly different. I’m thinking of Dick 3, in which the hand holding the cock captures an exquisite bend at the wrist. Were you after beauty at the same time that you were pursuing this intersection between sex and death?

WD: I’m very aware of how beauty is completely detached from all social and ethical values. But how social values attach themselves to the image is especially interesting to me. I prefer things that are not status-enhancing and pigs are certainly not status- enhancing. They’re funny, they may be visually interesting, but they’re not status-enhancing. It’s not like a lion. If you have a stuffed lion in your house, it might look like you go on safaris. So there’s a price attached, but there isn’t any price when you visually look at them. So a tree or a penis or hands or an X-ray or something perverted can be just like a flower.

BC: In Butt 2, you have that beautiful shape of the buttock with a hand that curls delicately under the cheek. It seems to me that Robert Mapplethorpe’s lyric impulse must have somehow infiltrated your own sensibility.

WD: Yes. I really admired how Mapplethorpe would place a sexual photograph and a flower on the same level, just as a biologist would do. But most people don’t realize how serious I was in making these pictures. I was also adamant about no interference from computers. For example, I could clean up some things with Photoshop, but that would be cheating. After two or three years of working in clinics, I completely forgot that I was dealing with vaginas and penises.

Anal Kiss B30, 2000, lipstick on hotel stationary, 53 x 44cm.

BC: You mean you lost sight of the subject matter?

WD: Just like a doctor. I really liked it when one of my friends came in. She’s a very beautiful woman who is a bit vain and she wanted to be in the pictures. The radiologist didn’t even look up from his computer before he congratulated her about her clavicula. He was completely in awe of that part of her body, and she was completely disturbed because she was reminded of having a skull and a skeleton. So radiology is the ultimate equalizer. You can leave your jewels on but it changes things only a little bit.

BC: I mentioned the lyric bend of the two hands in Dick 3. I think of them as women’s hands. Does it matter how one reads the gender of these images? Every once in a while you see a breast near a cock so you know a man and a woman are involved. But I’m not sophisticated enough as a reader of the inside of the body to know whether the skulls are men or women.

WD: In Dick 3 they are the hands of an Asian woman. Most of them are heterosexual actions, but the actions are also very uniform—unisex or something. I prefer blow jobs because you have a pelvis and a skull and those are the two bones that interest me the most. My favourite photographs are the ones where the skull and the pelvis come together in one frame. I engage a lot of thin women for practical reasons because often I use machines that are very small and designed for one body.

BC: Do you go up to someone and say, I’m doing some photographs and I want you to blow this man? Then you’re in a radiologist’s studio, as well. The whole thing is remarkably antiseptic at the same time that it’s so sexually charged.

WD: It’s like Dead Ringers with Jeremy Irons playing two roles, as a pair of identical gynecologist brothers who are interested only in the mechanics of life. Both were unable to have a real relationship, one because he was too nerdy and the other because he was too much of a playboy. This type of boyishness or this kind of maleness interests me a lot. There’s also a gender-related issue in what I’m doing. It’s really hard to make art these days as a male. It’s a bit like being a German. You’re not wrong, but maybe your father had been wrong. We may be dirty but let’s be very careful not to be called dirty macho patriarchs. We’re all walking on eggs because it’s so institutionalized. And maybe I’m interested in just shamelessly being a boy. But we should rave about one another’s pancreas in our poems. We should select one another for reasons other than “he’s a cool guy and he studied with me,” or “she’s really nice and she has a nice butt.” Think how much attention English people give to their horses and their dogs and how little attention they give to choosing their own partners. Am I a cynic to say that? Look at horses and the results they have. It’s a wonderful strange time where you have people in South Korea mixing mouse and human genes, and saying, if it’s too human, I promise I’ll kill it. Who’s going to decide when it is too human? If it’s got only one percent human cells? Ah, but then, how to deal with two percent? What do you call it and then what are its rights? I’m interested in what we’re doing with these in-between things, with these hybrids.

BC: All your pieces have this quality of frustrating expectations. You continually surprise the viewer.

WD: I also want to surprise myself because more and more I’m doing it for my own pleasure. I want to build up a different sense of power from some of my colleagues. For me, power is not making a lot of money. It’s to do anything I like. If I want to make a video, then I make a video. If I want to make a painting, I don’t stop myself. And that kind of power takes many, many years to come to.

BC: I notice that the process of making your work has turned you into an expert on exotic bodies of knowledge— radiology, tattooing, the science of the digestive system.

WD: Yes, the difficulties I meet are stimulating. The strategy is viral. You meet somebody—a radiologist, for example—who already has an experience and you treat the situation in an artistic way that he’s never seen before. And the exchange is wonderful. I remain superficial and I take what I need and things immediately get done that they never thought of. So that gives me pride as well. Then I move on. But I can move on precisely because I’m like a virus. I can go in and out and I don’t have to become a radiologist. I’m never a specialist, but I can be encyclopaedic. The exception is the gastro-intestinal system, where I accidentally started to become a bit of a specialist.

BC: You’ve also used an ironing board and a cement mixture, objects and implements of simplicity, even of domesticity.

Rose des Vents 1, 1992, bronze, vixen telescopes, 4 figures, 225cm each. Collection: Katoen Natie, Antwerp.

WD: Yes, things that either refuse an intellectual discourse or are difficult to drop into that discourse. If you’re talking about high concepts like life or God, it’s hard to drop in an ironing board. This type of thing remains a parable and an open image and I want to make an image that’s open, with lots of doors, lots of windows.

BC: You like to draw?

WD: It’s very strange but, unlike most artists I admire, I’m a product of an art school. I went to art school, I learned to paint, for example, and I know how to draw. I also know how to draw in an academic way. The drawings are getting important now. They weren’t when I started. I had Neo-geo guilt when I was a young artist. It’s only been in the last five years that I have been able to show my drawings without any embarrassment. It’s funny because I never had any embarrassment doing the concrete mixers and other things. But I had a lot of difficulty showing my drawings. I was hiding those skills. That was against the zeitgeist. If you were an ambitious German artist in 1986 or ’87 and admitted you liked to draw, you would be regarded as one of these dumb painters who were getting dropped everywhere. So I certainly was not betting on painting. I have nothing against painting, I just didn’t see much for myself in it. I just thought I had more important things to do as a young artist. Ambitious art in those days was not about drawing skills. But basically I’m a painter. I’ve always been one but I never dared to paint, maybe because I value it too much or something.

BC: I want to deal with the scatalogical in art. When I think about art and excrement, because my background is literary, I don’t think only of Manzoni but also of the poet William Butler Yeats. His line “Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement” makes the connection between love and shit. That’s a linkage with which you seem to go along.

X-rays, Dick 3, 2000, C-print on aluminum, 125 x 100cm.

WD: Of course. There’s also an ancient connection around a Latin proverb that linked money and shit. Manzoni is in a long line where I’m a grandson. Maybe he’s the father. In Buddhism the first lesson you learn is that when you want to go to the highest level, you first have to clean the floor, wipe off the insects, you have to put your butt on the floor. It’s very important: the butt on the floor. You put the lowest part of your body on the floor, then maybe you can get to the high concept. I like this contrast between high concept and low-tech material. You use it as if it were a parable. It’s like you see through the anus to see the stars, and you see the stars only through the anus.

BC: You approvingly mention Diogenes, who emptied his bowels in the Athens market. Do you see yourself as a kind of philosopher, an aesthetician of the lower order?

WD: Yes. When I was a student I was a little bit different from most students who were reading the French philosophers. I was reading Peter Sloterdijk, who wrote a wonderful book called Critique of Cynical Reason—the title was an analogy with Kant—which took a long time to be translated into English. This idea of looking through the arse of Diogenes was very influential. If Diogenes needs to choose an animal, he wouldn’t say lion; he would say pig. If he were to choose an object, he wouldn’t say computer; he would say shovel. If he were to choose a body part, he would say anus for sure.

BC: So your art celebrates the unapologetic. You refuse to apologize for being who you are, or for how you approach the body and sexuality?

WD: Yes. Oscar Wilde asks, how can art ever be ethical? That would be the end of it. When you’re aesthetic, you have your own rules. The Wildean point of view poses the aesthetic against the ethical. There’s an Eng- lish 19th-century proverb: whatever art touches, dies. It’s true. When did artists start to make lithographs? When it wasn’t a decent way of mass communicating anymore. Then artists chose this out-of-date and dying printing form. At the end of the 19th century, when offset was invented, only then do artists start to make lithographs. So when you see art doing something, you wonder if it isn’t dying.

BC: Is this a deliberate eroticization of death on the part of artists? Is there something about the aesthetic sensibility that is attracted to the dying forms?

WD: It’s what art does. It’s what the pig shows us. I tattoo a pig and it’s really crafty. You can use classical, academic, old-fashioned ways of judging the art, like can you make nice mimesis and representations of nature and you can do interesting shadowing, anatomy and perspective. You skillfully employ all these devices. No one wants to give a penny for an electronic tattoo on a live pig. But if the pig dies, it’s art. Then it’s a pigskin, it can be stuffed; it becomes a commodity. It’s really strange that it has to be dead to become that. It is rarely art before it becomes a commodity.

X-rays, Butt 2, 2000, C-print on aluminum, 125 x 100.

BC: When you refer to your procedure as viral, I can’t help but think of General Idea, the Canadian collaborative group. Their great innovation was the consistency with which they infiltrated pre-existing forms but filled them with subversive content, in the same way that you use the emblems of Mr. Clean or Coca Cola. You mentioned the word “virus,” which was one of General Idea’s central concepts. Did you know their work at all?

WD: Yes. I knew their flag but I didn’t know they were talking about viruses. I know they did a show in Ghent when I was a student, which I did not actually see as I never went to museum shows. But their flag was everywhere. And they caused a political problem locally because they used Ghent’s heraldic emblem.

BC: And that was taboo?

WD: You suggest an interesting formal link. The flags for tourists were replaced by General Idea’s flags and I noticed that kind of interference into the social fibre. They were most efficient.

BC: Because we’re not a world power, one of the ways Canadians can exercise our disagreement is to be subversive. It occurs to me that perhaps Belgians can operate in the same way.

WD: That’s correct. I believe in that in different ways. When I was doing wood carving in Indonesia, I was dealing with Chinese people and people from West Sumatra. There was something in them that made me think they were like me. And when I was in Canada I already admired Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg. It’s amazing what a culture you have. Canadians might hate it, but you can talk about a “Canadianness” in film.

BC: Given your interest in the inside of the body, it makes sense that you would mention Cronenberg. One of the best moments in Dead Ringers is when Genevieve Bujold’s character asks why no one has staged a beauty contest for the inside of the body, for the most beautiful spleen, or the most beautiful pancreas. Orlan also picks up on this idea of the beauty of the body’s inside in her “Carnal Art Manifesto.”

Picskins, Cidy, 2002, tatoo on pigskin, tanned, 100 x 140cm.

WD: Yes, it’s so contemporary and so logical. Every day we get a blast to our ego. And the first blast our collective ego suffered was Copernicus. We were made aware we weren’t the centre of the universe. Then Freud told us our instincts might be a much bigger deal than our consciousness. And before Freud, there was Mr. Darwin, who’s like Jesus: there’s “Before and After Darwin.” If we are ever visited by intelligent life, the first question they’ll ask is whether we have discovered evolution. In the last two or three years there’s a message from a scientist every day that is picked up in magazines. There are more genes in a grain of rice than in a human being. If genes are evolution, then rice grains are more evolved than we are. There are all these ego-blasting, truthful things.

BC: In your work you’ve been a brilliant mixer of objects and shifts in consciousness and function. You love that curious hybridity, the surprise that comes out of juxtaposing things we normally don’t associate with one another.

WD: I love this oscillation between life and art, between high and low, and between inside and outside. The high and the low are what gives status to things. Like when you bring a pig into a museum. How would you get this low thing into this very high place? And if I tattoo it, I get this pig a green card.

BC: It’s like bowerbirds. The male builds a bower and he does it aesthetically. That’s how he attracts a mate, by designing the most beautiful piece of bird architecture.

WD: That’s fantastic. I have a suspicion, which I have to look into, that through the ’80s ornithology destroyed nearly all the values of the 20th century. All the big “isms” of the century—Feminism, Communism, Marxism, Socialism—became naive. They’re outdated because they all started with the idea that you could create the human or the humanist. Stalin said to millions of people, go and live there and you’ll be Russian like all of us. And he moved people around or sent them to Siberia because he really believed he could create the Communist Man.

BC: Through a kind of social engineering?

WD: Yes, by social engineering and by brainwashing. The Chinese communists believed that by bringing people into camps and giving them special schooling, you could create their version of Communist Man. It was a horrible experiment conducted at the expense of millions of people. In a way the same thing is happening in the Anglo-Saxon, industrialized world. The media and universities believe they can create the Unsexist Man or something. And they’re naïve as well. Birdwatchers since the ’80s and geneticists today know that it’s already dated to start from that premise. Isn’t it amazing to think that we are only in the year 2005 and already it’s all dated?

Tattooed live pigs, Art Farm, Beijing.

BC: I want to talk about the pigskins. Many of them carry images that are pretty loaded. When you give content to your pieces, are you thinking of them as being outrageous?

WD: A painter is more or less responsible for what he paints, but a tattooist does not really care about subject matter. The pig is responsible for its own tattoo, not the tattooist.

BC: You’re not responsible because you don’t actually render the iconography?

WD: Well, I choose it, but everybody sees the image as a tattoo on a pig. And every pig has his own personality, just as every pig has a name. I keep saying to journalists who want to simplify things, if I write a crime novel, am I a criminal? No. I might be fascinated by criminals, but I’m not criminal in writing a crime novel because I’m into an aesthetic thing. So you can write your own crime every time on each pig. The pigs don’t really care about human issues. They’re alive and they do peepee and caca, so people have to clean it up. All of a sudden it humbles everyone; it humbles everyone just like Cloaca does.

BC: Is your choice of what could be described as inflammatory images an anarchist gesture?

WD: Often. I’m not surprised that so many artists use scatology. Cézanne was quoted as saying, if I don’t have any water, I use urine. Renoir said something similar. I think that generation was doing something with their mouths. They were just verbally scatological. But then from the Second World War on, I see only scatological art, even when it’s not meant to be.

BC: I was intrigued to hear you say that Cloaca seemed like an endgame for you. Is worrying about what you’ll do next an ongoing concern?

WD: It is one of my worries. I’m driven by the need to make art and I may be driven by the pleasure of just drawing and painting and making images. Nobody can ever steal that pleasure from me; the system can make me poor and unsuccessful, or it can decide to make me successful, but whatever happens I can always fall back on the pleasure of making. After Cloaca the pigs allowed me to say, Okay, just draw. What’s so great about the pig is it will do the same thing as Cloaca; it’s an art piece that pisses and shits and makes a lot of trouble in a system about dead objects.

Concrete mixer, 1991, carved teak wood, varnish, 165 x 190 x 97cm. Collection: Chatelus, Paris.

BC: What is your interest in the gothic? Do you have a particular interest in the sense of darkness that emerges from it?

WD: My fascination with the gothic is that it isn’t dark at all. For me it shows something like European springtime.

BC: In a romantic sense—I’m thinking here of British Romantic writers and poets—the gothic was closely tied to the idea of the monstrous. Is there anything in your work that moves towards the character of the monster?

WD: Maybe, but in a hidden form, through the tattoo. Tattoos allow me so much. Whatever I do, it’s the pig’s opinion, it’s Emily or Gregory or whatever I call the pig, because they’re all actors in a theatre play, even if they’re dead and they’re skin on the wall.

BC: I’m delighted by the wit of the mountain messages. You talk about taking the discourse of art out of the museum and, certainly, making a quotidien Mount Rushmore accomplishes that. Was part of the strategy to move art outside the context of the museum?

WD: Yes. I call it street credibility. It’s like the US dollar; everywhere you go, you can count on it. That’s my Visa card. Even in Iran, I’m somebody. I’m not lost. It’s this type of credibility you need to look for when you make an image. An ironing board is nearly the same everywhere. You can see it in a ’50s movie as well as in a movie made today.

BC: And soccer plays the same role, doesn’t it? The soccer goalpost always has the same dimensions?

WD: Yes. I was worried when I read that soccer wasn’t popular in America. I nearly decided not to show my piece because it wouldn’t be correct. I’m very aware of the common knowledge people have of each thing I do. I count on whatever you associate with pigs. I’m not starting with a blank slate. It’s not the object itself that’s ready-made, but your ideas about the object are.

BC: Yet you actually talk about your art as being “anti” ready-made.

WD: Just because they are so crafty. And it denies so much of the found-objectness of being a ready-made. We more or less have the same associations with pigs. Now, it may be that you’ve been bitten by a pig and your associations are coloured by that experience. But generally we have the same ideas about them and I rely on that. It’s not that I start from a stone. It’s always culturally charged. Even with a pig I count on the cultural issues.

BC: Your work is highly culturally charged. That’s part of its potency and what makes it not only funny but, in some ways, subversive. You’ve said that you don’t want the protection of the museum, but at the same time you operate inside museum structures. I’m interested in how subtle are the accommodations that have to be made by an artist whose art runs the gamut from the impish to the subversive. You still are part of that system; you’re not outside it.

Marble Floors, #93, 1999, C-print on aluminum, 100 x 125cm.

WD: That’s true. In the beginning we were dreaming of doing it outside the museum. Now we’ve accepted that the museum is the ideal place to show and to conserve something. But I still judge my stuff in street terms. If I put it on the street, what happens then? What happens when people see it hanging on the street, or standing next to some garbage? Would people consider it an image worth looking at? Even when they don’t care about it, would it still work visually? I think, yes, so that makes me happy. That’s how I test my own work.

BC: So it has to be able to exist in both worlds. It has to be recognized as a soccer goal, but it also needs to have the recognition of art? That would be the litmus test for you?

WD: Yes, the litmus test. I was fascinated by universal brands, like Coca Cola, and at the same time with functioning objects, like a gas canister or a concrete mixer. Everybody sees it’s a concrete mixer. So how far can you go doing it in wood, and is it still a concrete mixer if you do it in that material?

BC: How did you actually do the video called Sybille II? I know what it is, but how does it work?

WD: In this case I counted a bit on my reputation. I usually don’t tell people I’m an artist until much later, and I’m even a little embarrassed saying I’m an artist. But I went to a local art school in Ghent—I always return to my hometown when it gets very difficult. A colleague of mine was teaching there and I said, I need zits and 18-year-olds have the best zits. We didn’t say why or what I was going to do, we just went to all the classes and I selected a few.

Goals, Penalty 1, 1989, stained glass, steel, enamel paint 200 x 300 x 100cm.

BC: So you simply filmed them squeezing their blackheads?

WD: I squeezed them. Then, in the montage, we reframed each image. We did pellicule to have enough resolution after reframing. We take high-resolution frames but then sometimes we cut 60 or 70 percent from the surface of that image and lay in a new same- shape image. You have very little of the fingers or the nails. Often I kept in the nails when they reflected the pimple about to be squeezed. The nail is shiny with lacquer and then you see the pimple squeezed out and mirrored in the nail. It’s very beautiful. Similarly with the X-rays; you have to seduce everybody. So after people had seen Sybille three or four times, they’d say, “Wim, your art makes me feel really happy.” That’s when I tell them that what they’re seeing is not under-water sea creatures, it’s zits.

BC: It’s a fascinating video. It took me a while to figure out what I was looking at, but all the while I was looking, I found it mesmerizing.

WD: I did the music myself, all on a computer. I’m very proud of that. It’s part of my pride at being so versatile. But I love it when you’re completely alone and you look in the mirror and you squeeze a zit on your nose, or when I notice a blackhead and I can’t wait till I see a mirror. Everybody secretly loves their own zits, or they love doing it, or they had a period when they liked it.

BC: Are there gaps, to use Rauschenberg’s word again, between your art and life?

WD: Of course. I mean, I’m technophobic and yet I’m entranced by computer programs—like Autocad— which is the 3D program used by architects. I’m also a vegetarian and I tattoo pigs. I have frequent handwashing syndrome and I work with pigs. And I’m microphobic. I can’t even touch the seats in taxis. It’s pretty heavy.

BC: It is, indeed. Walt Whitman, the American poet, asked in one of his poems, “Do I contradict myself?” and his answer was, “Well then, I contradict myself.” It’s worth keeping Walt in mind when we attempt to explain ourselves.

WD: That’s true. It’s never simple.

BC: Are you constantly working on new things or are the pigs again filling in the gap of worry? They seem to be your talisman.

WD: They are the thing I go back to, like you go back to your mom. I always remember the possibilities I didn’t exploit. I’m also always improving the pigs. They have been getting more complicated.

BC: The scale and the numbers of your work make you a kind of industry.

WD: Yes. I don’t know how other people do it, but last year I made quite a lot of money and I put it all back into the work. There’s another notion I’m working with; the idea that you invest in a small tattoo and then you harvest. That idea of harvesting is really interesting. But this whole thing takes over very quickly on every level. The art farm plays into that glorious capitalist metaphor of growing paintings. I never heard of any collector rushing to an art show because the paintings were going down in price. Even the most noble collector, who sees himself as a museum, is speculating, somehow. If he’s not speculating for monetary value, he’s certainly speculating for social and symbolic value.

Gas Canisters, Installation of 19 canisters, 1988-1989, enamel paint on gas canisters, dimensions variable.

BC: So as the pig grows, its skin expands, which means that the tattoo increases in size.

WD: We start at 25 or 30 kilos and then we stop when he’s 100 kilos. And you see amazing growth. Every week you have a growth of one or two centimetres for each drawing.

BC: Does the intensity of the colour diminish as the pig grows?

WD: Sometimes. But we shoot a lot of ink in it and we also recolour while we work. We do a lot of recolouring. For example, the reds and the yellows are very hard to fix. The more the pig grows, the more the red turns to pink, like when blowing up a red balloon.

BC: You’re still having a lot of fun, aren’t you?

WD: Sometimes the fun comes more from finishing something than from doing it. My fun is much more like endurance, waiting patiently until your moment finally arrives. But you have only a few of those per year. The way I like to work is, I’m on the phone about tattooers in China; then, half an hour later, I am very seriously talking to a guy in Holland about printing the convertible bonds in such a way that nobody can ever copy them; and the next day I have a meeting with the engineer who is improving the rectum of one of our Cloacas. Yeah, I have a lot of fun. ■

Volume 24, Number 4: Strange Beauty

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #96, published November 2005.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.