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Wim Delvoye: Tattooing Pigs or the Art of Provocation

Michèle Kieffer

Wim Delvoye is not merely an artist, but also a ‘provocateur’. Renowned as the bad boy of contemporary art, the Flemish is famous for his controversial Art Farm and shocking installations. Michèle Kieffer describes how the artist has pushed the boundaries of art and ethics in the name of provocation.

Wim Delvoye, Art Farm Beijng 2003-2010, Live tattooed pigs
©Studio Wim Delvoye

Wim Delvoye, who was born in Wervik, Belgium, in 1965, is known for his heavy Catholic inspired gothic constructions as well as pieces using a shocking range of material, from excrement to pigs’ skins.

Amongst his most infamous works is Cloaca, first presented in 2000, a digestive machine whose sole purpose is to produce fecal matter. The vast digestive machine was designed to be fed several times a day with a variety of tasty foods: Belgian frites with mayonnaise, monkfish aux fines herbes and some Belgian beer — standard Belgian favourites. Churning away at its job of producing excrement, Cloaca confronts viewers with a blatantly jarring reminder of their own bodily presence at its most fundamental and private. Commenting on the concept of Cloaca, Delvoye stated his desire to make a statement about the futility of modern life. Delvoye thus created an utterly useless machine to undertake what he considered (and many would disagree) the most useless function of all — transforming food into waste. Cloaca fecal matter could even be purchased, vacuum-packed, by eager collectors, which in itself is a commentary on the contemporary arts world.

Watch a clip of Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca here:

Delvoye’s equally controversial project was his tattooed pigs. Delvoye started tattooing the skin of dead pigs in the early 1990s, but it was not until 1997 that the artist began to use live pigs as a canvas. In 2004, he bought a farm in a little village near Beijing where he systematically elaborated the artistic concept for his Art Farm. There, the pigs grow up while a team of specialists looks after them. Assistants, veterinarians, and, of course, Delvoye himself, sedate the piglets, shave their skin, tattoo them, keep the wounds clean and their skin properly moisturised. In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Delvoye described his concept as follows: ‘I show the world works of art that are so alive, they have to be vaccinated…It lives, it moves, it will die. Everything is real.’

The tattoos themselves are based on Delavoye’s drawings, most of which refer to Western iconography. From popular biker symbols such as hearts and skulls, to Disney princesses, the Louis Vuitton monogram and religious images, Delvoye ‘mixes antagonist elements in order to create an impact and make people feel uncomfortable.’ By placing the motives on pigskin, the artist takes away their message and purpose. They become pure decorum, their only intent is to shock and be beautiful. Delvoye declared in an interview with Claire Naa in 2007: ‘When visitors turn around the pigs, observe it, I am happy. I feel like I‘ve given them back their dignity’.

Wim Delvoye, Art Farm Beijng 2003-2010, Live tattooed pigs
©Studio Wim Delvoye

The artist sees the pig as an investment, a piggy bank, literally. Sporting Louis Vuitton logos and Disney princesses, Delvoye’s live pigs were tattooed as piglets and grew along with their marks. Like Cloaca, art collectors could choose to buy either live tattooed pigs or taxidermied dead ones. Buyers can purchase a pig and let it grow old on the farm. After its death, they can ‘harvest’ the skin. The pigs are not killed for their skin, but they live in order to produce the live canvas that is their skin. They are live objects of consumption as soon as the ink decorates their backs, but they can only be materially possessed after their death. Delvoye imitates the concept of economic growth by assigning a ‘value’ to the pigs. The ink drawings on their backs enlarge as the pigs grow bigger, and as their shapes change, so do their tattoos. Here, the artist deals with various contemporary issues such as the globalisation of the meat industry, the pursuit of profit and the transformation of animals into consumer goods. Unsurprisingly, Delvoye’s Art Farm has provoked strong controversy: several animal rights organisations protested and the artist was banned from art fairs for his work.

Wim Delvoye, Art Farm Beijng 2003-2010, Live tattooed pigs
©Studio Wim Delvoye

In many cultures, pigs are associated with negative characteristics such as dirtiness or even gluttony and greed. However, Delvoye can’t help but compare the nudity, the texture and the colour of pigskin to human skin. It was thus hardly a surprise when the artist tattooed the back of a young man called Tim Steiner in 2006. It is not so much the tattoo itself that shocks, but rather the unconventional contract that Steiner signed with Delvoye and Rik Reinking, a gallery owner and German collector: he has to exhibit his posterior three times a year and, on his death, his skin will be ‘harvested’ and sent to Reinking, who will be allowed to sell the work to another collector.

The concept of Wim Delvoye’s tattoo art, already ethically and artistically debatable when inked into pigskin, is even more controversial when applied to a human being, yet, because Steiner chose to sign the contract whilst fully aware of its implications, this extension of the project has, somehow, generated less controversy.

By Michèle Kieffer