Shout Magazine

Mark Kostabi on Wim Delvoye

You might be surprised when I say that some of Wim Delvoye’s work is pure shit. But when I opened my July/September issue of Flash Art, there it was: a slick three-page ad shilling Cloaca faeces.

“Each of these Cybershits are unique pieces of art. ‘Cloaca Shit’ is now specially freeze-dried, sterilized, vacuum-packed, dated and signed by the artist $1500.” In the ad, Wim Delvoye’s name was expertly designed in the upbeat lettering style of Walt Disney’s logo, while the Cloaca logo spoofed both Coca Cola and Ford.

Of course, Piero Manzoni already did something similar in the ’60s when he sold cans labeled as Artist’s Shit. But Delvoye’s was freeze-dried and you could see it, unlike Manzoni’s, which was packed in metal cans. Plus, Delvoye’s ad was part of the work, lampooning the similarity between the art market and the corporate world.

When I telephoned Belgium to speak with Delvoye, who lives and works in both Ghent and New York, he told me his turds are actually the product o a machine he created, called Cloaca, which eats two meals a day of food prepared by first-rate chefs. The elaborate, Rube Goldberg-type contraption then processes the food step-by-step, infusing it with the exact same acids and chemicals found in the human digestive system, and at the end of the line, twenty hours later, the equivalent of human feces drops into a spinning turntable.

“Completely biologically correct,” Delvoye said. He claims that if scientists were to analyze Cloaca shit, they would be unable to distinguish it from legitimate human shit. Which further distinguishes him from Piero Manzoni, whose cans, it turns out, didn’t even contain shit in the first place. Evidently, Manzoni, whose father owned a can factory, knew that real canned shit would eventually explode, and used something like tomato ketchup instead.

Delvoye is not known solely for his shit machine however: For the 1999 Venice Biennale, he had Indonesian craftsmen carve a full-size Belgian cement truck in teak. He has also had professional tattoo artists decorate live pigs on Belgian pork farms, preserving the skins as paintings once the pigs went to market.

Now, for his latest one-person exhibition, Delvoye is showing stained glass windows made from X-rays of people having sex- a veritable inside-out Kama Sutra. During the day, the gallery lights are out, and natural light pours in through the new Gothic-style gallery windows. Gothic because Delvoye says we’re living in medieval times, in a new period of crusading. At night, passersby get a light show- the gallery lights are turned on and you can see the X-ray sex from the sidewalk of 13th Street.

To create these sex-ray images, Delvoye invited Belgian friends to paint parts of their bodies with small amounts of barium and then have sex in actual medical clinics. The results are unique and powerful, like most of Delvoye’s work. And the images are only distantly reminiscent of the London shock artists Gilbert and George who also hung sexual and scatological imagery in an environment that evoked a neo-Gothic cathedral.

Delvoye says many of his activities- tattooing pigs, making biological machines that produce shit and making love in medical clinics- would be nearly impossible in America, which he believes has become too litigious. But in Europe, at least, the often political Delvoye can still do whatever he wants.

Gothic works, through 26 October, Sperone Westwater, 415 West 13th Street, New York,

October 2002