In an essay on Wim Delvoye in Wim Delvoye Introspective (Wercatorfonds, 2012), Bart Verschaffel offers that you could, if you so choose, consider life and history according to the classic theatrical dichotomies of tragedy or comedy. He admits that it would indeed be difficult, if not morally reproachable, to qualify that strained mass of circumstance and event called “History” with a happy-face symbol, although in his embrace of the negative, this seems something Delvoye himself might successfully justify. However, Verschaffel observes that a subset of comedy, in the form of foolishness, is omnipresent. “Man,” he says, “is an incorrigible fool, mankind a stubborn and conceited species. The inflated human self-esteem is natrow-minded, parochial, ludicrous and moreover extremely dangerous.” It’s difficult not to agree that there exists some latent propensity for things to go very badly, due to the exact qualities listed above.
In fitting happenstance, at the same time that Wim Delvoye is exhibiting at DHC in Montreal, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), also in Montreal, is hosting an exhibition entitled “It’s All Happening So Fast, A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment,” which is a chaptered (and descending) story outlining Canada’s exploitive relationship with its natural resources. When faced with a wall-sized illustrated catalogue of failed extractive ventures postured on what appears a very limited comprehension of progress, which result, for example, in oil spills, over fishing, clear-cuts and abuse of Indigenous rights and peoples, it’s entirely possible to think that man is indeed an incorrigible fool. So, it is here in the critique of resource management at the CCA that an unexpected support to Delvoye’s show can be found, which speaks to the second half and sum of the consumerist equation—the making, marketing and selling of commodity, while questioning our insatiable collective want that fuels the need to “have.” Bent on its own accelerated pace of production, the West, according to Delvoye, now has little to offer: “We have nothing left to export except an image of luxury, useless things,” he said in an interview with Nestor Perkal, in Wim Delvoye (Musée departmental de Rochechouart, 1995).
The show at DHC offers an impressive and cohesive range of such items—gorgeous useless things that in their manifestations trouble the notion of luxury, which is often equated with purity and authenticity. The bronze works such as Suppo Karmanyaka, 2012, and Daphnis & Chloe Rorschach III, 2012, appear as though reflected in a funhouse mirror, which exacerbates the suspicion of deception— that something is not what it claims to be, not unlike the thriving luxury knock-off industry existing as the bastard child of the global economy. And while the 21st century may have lessened the dichotomous lines between “high” and “low” in the art world, accoutrement remains a strong signifier in the street of one’s class or cohort—carrying a real Louis Vuitton bag or a fake one defines the carrier in two very different ways. And Louis Vuitton, as Delvoye has experienced first-hand after tattooing a pig with their signature pattern vector, fiercely guards its brand’s sanctity. The artist’s response is that a company whose insignia has become so ubiquitous should learn how to take a joke.
So, while it is true that the world and its history are not primarily underpinned by comedy (although absurdity seems a strong contender), the work of Delvoye often is; it’s for us to “get,” or “take” the joke. My response to much of the show was not so much laughter but rather estrangement or ambivalence, feeling as though my perspectival vantage point was from a distance greater than my physical positioning. To evoke ambivalence is not a mark of failure, as ambivalence is an emotion on the human spectrum as worthy of conjuring as any other and its emergence here, accompanied by the sensation of distance, is not unlike my relationship towards luxury goods in the real world. Being someone to whom such items are inaccessible and even undesirable, I understand them as baroque concepts largely represented by image rather than actual objects that occupy space in the world, and with which I will never have a personal engagement.
Attendant with the exaltation of the works—which is often the result of placing any object in a museological or gallery setting befitting only “high-end” goods—is an overriding quality of inertness generated by so many objects, as though a state of arrest has been imposed on myriad acts of becoming, or undoing. Works could be perceived as icons of potential or evidence of disaster, such as in the case of the four sculptures of twisted motorcycle tires (2013), pragmatically named (specs included) as the thing they are or were. Other corruptions of geometry include the series of foundry works, Double Helix Crucfix, 2006–07. Consisting of distorted and intertwined crucifix forms, they are rendered at once aesthetically elevated and useless as the twisted motorcycle tires, robbed as they both are of their respective spiritual and physical purposes. Such works are examples of what Delvoye terms “emulsions”— objects not simply hybrid (as if born that way), but which require agitation to mix; indeed almost all Delvoye’s oeuvre can fall under such excited classification.
With many of the pieces in possession of more or less pure strains of a Gothic aesthetic (on display, for example, is the Gothic- inspired steel sculpture, Twisted Dump Truck Clockwise, 2011), Delvoye plays with notions of excess and barbarism as a concept denoting the societal fringe marked by an uncertain border— territory made unstable through constant semiotic shifts (or twists) that occur in the slipperiness of cultural capital. Tattoos, once a kind of branding for riff-raff and sailors, have been appropriated by the in-group of hipsters and the mainstream. Hence, Delvoye’s pig- tattooing project (of which there are examples in the form of mounted pigskins and a three-channel video of the art farm itself at DHC) will assume different cultural significance over time, and will meet with greater or less contention in response to the mere manifestation of the act in itself. And while I may not see the tattooing of live pigs as “funny” per se, I did have to wonder whether the reason the artist met so much criticism was due to his transparency or even celebration in the doing. In this I think Delvoye points to the hypocritical relationship that society has with the notion of transparency being a kind of moral or political requisite, as general resistance is low against the meat industry largely due to the fact that the abattoir is a veiled operation, and our conception of killing, and production, is placed in a deep mental vault in order to facilitate mindless consumption.
What Delvoye is so adept at is embracing and inflating the negative and flipping the angles of that geometry so that we may see some comedy within all the tragedy, which is generally the product of fools on a singular or plural level. Transformation as an organic process tends to respect limits. When man inserts himself in the process, the limits are pressed upon, and distortion and exhaustion become frequent results. We have great faith in humankind’s ingenuity, which leads to the false security that we are capable of solving our way out of the most trying circumstances, such as those presented in our current environmentally and politically fragile moment. What Delvoye’s emulsions point to as they pay self- mocking homage to themselves is ingenuity’s ability to strangle itself in its conceited effort. ❚
“Wim Delvoye” was exhibited at DHC/ART, Montreal, from November 30, 2016, to March 19, 2017.