WIM DELVOYE: Naughty Boy
Andrea Blanch: I went to the 1999 Venice Biennale, when I first saw your work. What I would like to know is, were the sex x-rays made within the same period as the work at the Venice Biennale?
Wim Delvoye: The first x-rays were done in 1999, or 98, but then I made some very good ones in 2000-2001, and that was when I was showing the Cloaca machine – a large installation that turns food into feces. That was in 2000. Then I went to New York in 2001, I was in the New Museum – so I was immersed in that math and science kind of stuff.
AB: Okay, so you were still working with the machine, the Cloaca at that time. Right? Or the x-rays?
WD: No, I was much more into bronzes, and other types of sculptures. But at that time, everyone’s fascination was for science, medical, clinical things, the human body, and x-ray machines. X-ray machines were fun, and I returned to that. As soon as I got the Cloaca machine finished, I went back to the x-rays.
AB: I’ve seen three of the sex x-rays. On your website, I saw Dick, Blow, and Lick. These are fabulous names. Did you do more than three?
WD: Of course. I also have a series called States of the Cross or Viae Crucis. They are x-rays that are not dealing with sexual matters, but they deal with religion. They’re a bit different from the sex-rays, in a sense, they’re not so explicit, and much more collage-like.
AB: With your gothic windows – Chapel (2008), 9 Muses (2001-02), and Days of the Week (2001) – did you use x-rays to do that at all? They look like they are x-rays, cut like stained glass.
WB: In the beginning, I asked a stained glass window maker to do double glass, and in between the glass we did the x-ray. Which is in itself transparent. Then, I thought if I really wanted to integrate them into something a bit architectural – because I got a bit more ambitious afterwards – then I have to put the x-ray image on the glass itself. It’s a pigment we burn into the glass, and that pigment I apply with silk screen. They’re very beautiful because the pigment is a very interesting material, it’s a medieval material.
AB: So getting back to the sex-rays – the Machine, I would imagine, was vertical, no?
WB: The first, second, third machines were horizontal. The fourth one was vertical. The machine was starting to look more anthropomorphic. But then, at the same time, they were done in different situations. I was assisted by different people. The big link they made content-wise is that they all ask the viewer: Where is the soul? Where is love? Or, where is the human feeling, or this kind of immaterial thing like the soul, or the spirit? The next day, you see a very material image of the human being, a scientific one, which means you’re not seeing their happiness, or love, or the soul. You see the human being as a machine as well. It’s the same, it’s like a golem, a soul, more superior to us, in a way – it can live forever, but it doesn’t have a spirit. Like the golem in the old mythology.
AB: Why did you decide to present sex in this way? I read that you gave the example of Tracy Emin, her art is about saying that she’s a girl. So do you think that this work says that you’re a boy?
WB: A lot of my work, in general is machine-like; we make spud guns, we make shit machines. It is not why I started to do x-rays. I’m thinking of a movie where Jeremy Irons plays two characters in the film.
AB: Oh, I remember that film, Dead Ringers (1988). Loved it!
WB: It wouldn’t be such a scary movie if it was two girls, in my opinion. From the beginning of the movie, you know that this is going to end up wrong. There’s these twin brothers, and there was this really strange sexual tension. I was aware of that movie when we were doing these x-rays – you have science and the medical, contrasting with human feeling and romance. By the way, only later I realized I could never do the sex x-rays in the United States. This country is so religious. Doctors are so worried about being sued. There’s a certainly prudent attitude in the United States. For example, I needed doctors, and the doctor I found was so adamant to participate. He was astonished that he’d never thought to do that. He happened to be in his midlife crisis. And it was also funny – I put my penis in the mammography machine, and he said, “Look, I’ve been here for years and never thought to put my penis in this machine.” I thought, that’s the first thing I think of. I opened his eyes to his own clinic!
AB: That’s very funny. You don’t use photography that much in your work, am I right? You mainly use the x-rays. How did you get so good at Photoshop if you don’t have to use it all the time?
WD: Because it was the new thing, then. I wanted to see what could be done, and I was already having the idea – for the x-rays – for a couple of years. Most of my ideas are laying in a cave for a long time, until I find the right situation, the money, the people, the place. It has to be so right, waiting in the cave; like cheese or wine. They get better in the cave. They get better when you wait. Things are so expensive. It’s usually very complicated to do. For example, with the pigs — I don’t know about tattoos. I mean, it’s not my world, and so I begin looking into the world of people much cooler than me, rougher than me. I have to befriend them for a while. I then have to befriend the veterinary doctor willing to give me a quick prize. Can you imagine? Again, another piece, just like with the x-rays, that would be even more complicated in the United States. Doctors are so afraid for their licenses. For example, the tattooing of pigs – “Art Farm” (1998-2010) and “Tattooed Pigs” (2005-06) – and the radiographing of people, they think it’s an issue of safety with the x-rays, or it’s an issue of being liable as a doctor. The big taboo, mainly, is that you’re doing it for art. Globally, societies have a problem with art. We think we are all into contemporary art, but as soon as contemporary art does something with technology, whose purpose is to save lives, then people’s real opinions come out. If it’s not for saving lives, you cannot x-ray yourself. You cannot do it for fun.
AB: When I first read about the pig project, about the tattooing, someone said to me: well, what becomes of the pig, does someone kill the pig? I got very concerned because I’m an animal activist. He said, you know what, I don’t know if he kills the pigs or not. Then, the more research I did – it said you had this pig farm, the pigs are still alive and they will grow into old age. I think it’s very important.
WD: You know, when we have killed the pig, it’s because it has broken more than one leg. And do you know why the legs get broken? The pig is more than 300 kilo.
AB: Oh, they can’t support their weight.
WD: No, they have not been genetically selected for a long life on these legs. And so people, for commercial reasons, don’t wait for the 300 kilos. It takes many, many years for the 300-kilo, because the growth is slowing down, of course. We have pigs that got bigger and bigger and bigger. And then, we love them, because in China, we were showing them live as art pieces, and we were mourning when we lost one. I lost an art piece.
AB: Does anyone know you’re a vegetarian? I don’t think anyone knows that.
WD: I’m not making a big noise about it.
AB: You’re not, but it’s interesting.
WD: People in paradise will be judged by some Holy Lord. He will look in his book and he will see that I’m close to a Buddhist. I am not responsible for the death of many animals. I wouldn’t kill an ant in front of me. I will go out of the way for an ant, even a spider.
AB: Let me ask you, I notice you are doing a lot of sculptures at this time. I read that you would like to do an architectural project. Is that still true?
WD: Yes, basically, the architecture and building is the biggest taboo. I need more lawyers than anything else I’ve done. Just having a building permit these days; it’s impossible. So, all these structures that I want to build depends on the community and a lot of fundraising, or some man with the means to help me. So, this is the most difficult project, more difficult than anything I’ve done. So, I’m still doing the sculptures, often science-based. My new series of tires are very geometric looking with the Mobius. My fascination with the Mobius is also something quite scientific. I turned lots of crucifixes into a double DNA helix. What else did I do? I turned 19th century classic sculptures into Rorschach tests. So my work has a lot of science everywhere. It’s a different science, each time.
AB: The sex x-rays aren’t sexy in a pornographic way. But I have to say, they’re shocking. My mouth dropped when I looked at them. They’re very erotic, once you realize what you’re looking at. At first, you’re not sure, since they’re x-rays.
WD: Some of them. This one lady, who has a very, very beautiful neck, and it’s so beautiful, it’s sensual, because the neck is making this amazing S line. After I complimented this lady for her neck, she didn’t know how to take it. She never had a compliment about that specific part of her assets. She probably gets compliments about her legs, but I loved her neck.
AB: What about you – I’m curious, regarding your work. You really charged a thousand dollars for a turd from your Cloaca machine?
WD: At that time? No, I would ask for much more.
AB: And people bought it? People bought it?
WD: Oh yes.
AB: You have nerve! Chutzpah!
WD: There were people from Bulgaria, buying with their Visa cards on the net.
AB: How many did you sell?
WD: Twenty-twenty-five. On September 11, 2001, the machine was operating in Dusseldorf. One person paid a lot of money for September 11, 2001. It’s a lot of money to have this in his collection, because he thought this date was more important than another one. It’s just shit. All shits are the same. Because that shit was produced on a symbolic date, he liked that. It was cool to have a September 11th shit. Then another person paid for his birthday, this happened on his birthday, and he couldn’t resist buying it. It’s like you buy an old newspaper, or a vintage newspaper, on your birthday.
AB: Was it your idea to charge for it?
WD: That’s a good question Nobody ever, ever asks that. They think I’m Satan who is selling shit as art. Basically, the museum was pushing me to finance the show. They thought this was a beautiful part of the project, to sell it, and to mimic the economy was a part of it. It was part of it, I already had the logo for the machine, and later on, I took on more logos. It’s spoofs referring to capitalism, big brands made in America, most of them. I did Harley Davidson, I did Proctor and Gamble, I did Ford… I made these logos to mimic the economy, mainly. Like a naughty boy.
AB: So you are the devil.
WD: The funny part is it was my job to sell them to make more money. Still, people bought it because a drawing may be more expensive. By mimicking the economy, I was also making a parody of the art world. It’s like telling the outsiders of the art world, “Look, this is the art world. They’re all silly, rich people. They’re even paying for my shit, hahaha.”
AB: Are you in one of the sex x-rays? Did you participate?
WD: I participated, but the doctor didn’t let me participate more than anybody else, so I had to keep looking for new people. When I had done a couple of shots, he didn’t let me do anything for six months.
AB: How long did the project take you?
WD: Years, many years. I was allowed to bring in other people and couples. But if I brought in a couple, after two times, the doctor I worked with would say, “You’re done.” And if it didn’t work, I would have to have another couple waiting in the waiting room. Some people wanted to do it, and they didn’t know each other. I would say, “You really have to know each other very well to do exactly what I’d like you to do.” Some people would say, “Yeah, I want to do this,” and sometimes I complied. People are so vain, they all wanted to have their faces in the picture; they all wanted to do a blowjob. I would explain to the ladies that, “Look, I already have enough blowjobs. I have them in x-ray. I have them in MRI. I have them in all kinds of ways.” And they’d say, “I want to do this. Please!” Then sometimes the acts were way more innocent, like just kissing it, or putting a finger in someone’s arse. These are not popular.
AB: You’re a director, love it.
WD: Yes, yes, yes. You can recognize me – the very abject ones that nobody wanted to do. I had to sacrifice myself. For example, I licked the arse of a pig, and put a dildo inside the vagina of a pig.
AB: Oh my God.
WD: It’s very cruel. I also penetrated a chicken.
AB: A live chicken?
WD: No, no, all were frozen and dead. I bought a dead pig – actually, I raised a pig, and then, it was brought to me dead. And then I put my finger in it, the vagina. Oh, sorry, a vibrator, a dildo. There was no harm to the animals. I had to sacrifice myself. It was frozen, and that’s the clever part, it was in a plastic bag. And the plastic bag, you don’t see on the x-ray, of course. So I licked the arse of a pig, but there was a plastic foil between my tongue and the pig. Neither I smelled the pig, neither I tasted the pig. This is a self- portrait, and I clearly recognize myself because I have my glasses on. It was a new self-portrait, it made it look like I sacrificed myself for art, but there’s a plastic foil, people don’t know. So I’m also a bit of a trickster, but the x-rays are not tricked at all. This is really about understanding an x-ray machine, you know very well what x-ray machines do.
AB: Are you having a show soon?
WD: When I do it will be in Paris. Being in Paris is like being home. It’s like a home match. I stay home to play, Paris is like my backyard. I always test my work in Paris before I show it in other places, because I know that I have a lot of fans there. Often when I worry about a new idea, I mix it up with an old idea, and I test it in Paris. If the reaction is good, then it goes to other places.
AB: You’re cautious.
WD: Because I change all the time. And I don’t see other people succeeding in what I do. It doesn’t go unpunished, you see?