Consuming Discourse: Commodification and the Work of Wim Delvoye

December 16, 2016

Wim Delvoye: Movements is a tool designed by DHC/ART Education to encourage visitors to develop and elaborate on some key concepts of the exhibition Wim Delvoye. These concepts are commodification, twist, ornament, and sacred/profane.

Context: Commodification

The work of Wim Delvoye is well anchored in late 20th century postmodernist preoccupations of his generation, such as critical questioning of authorship and the commodification of art. Through complementary strategies of dislocation and alteration [1] he has, for over 20 years, taken apart false dichotomies, challenged aesthetic hierarchies, and interrogated the social, cultural, and monetary value of images and objects. Delvoye has achieved critical and commercial success, resulting in his work being amongst the most recognizable in contemporary art today.

Marxist geographer David Harvey suggests that claims to uniqueness and authenticity surrounding revered cultural objects are “as much an outcome of discursive constructions and struggles as they are grounded in material fact [2]”. Simply put, successful branding relies as much on the choice of carefully selected words as it does on an object’s provenance, materials, or quality. Through this optic, what is particular about Wim Delvoye’s practice is the expansiveness of his proactive, savvy, and fully integrated participation in constructing the sensational discourse surrounding his own artworks. The appropriation of iconic logos, creation of stock options, and production of related merchandise are among various strategies that Delvoye employs to simultaneously reveal and capitalize on the absurdities of the art market.

Delvoye is known for engaging with the very systems he exposes. His previous large-scale projects – bordering on small commercial industries – include Cloaca (2000–2009), which comprises 10 editions of a machine that produces feces for entry into the art market, and Art Farm (2004–2008), his Beijing-based farm on which he raised and tattooed a herd of pigs, whose skins were claimed in advance by collectors anticipating their future worth. Through the creation and growth (literal and monetary) of fetishized, sellable works of art, Delvoye took the relatively common practice among tattooists to hone their skills on pigskins to another level.

Author Sarah McFadden writes, “[w]ho would buy such a thing? Institutions hungry for smart art and private collectors bent on making smart investments, even if that entails buying works whose very substance cries out ‘capitalist pig’. The artist’s brand name turns the insult into flattery, making it seem chic and shameless, and that’s his point [3]”.

Delvoye insists that “[t]he 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 [4]”. In turn, Delvoye uses the inevitability of speculation as fodder for both content and promotion, leaving us ever uncertain about the complex forces shaping the creation, distribution, and ultimate consumption of art.

Author Aurélie Bousquet suggests that “[i]n addition to being an entrepreneur, Wim Delvoye is also a brand [5]”. How do you understand this statement?

What do you think are potential strengths and contradictions of working with – and benefiting from – the same system that is the subject of your critique?

Emily Keenlyside
DHC/ART Education

[1] MOSQUERA, Gerardo (2016). “Subversive Beauty”. Wim Delvoye. Exhibition catalogue (Tehran, Museum of Contemporary Art, 07/03/2016 – 13/05/2016). Tehran: Museum of Contemporary Art Press.
[2] HARVEY, David (2002). “The Art of Rent: Globalization, Monopoly and the Commodification of Culture”. Socialist Register, vol, 38, p. 93-110.
[3] MCFADDEN, Sarah (2010). “Gothic Mischief”. The Bulletin (October). Online. Consulted November 17, 2016.
[4] ENRIGHT, Robert (2005). “Wim & Vigor. An Interview with Wim Delvoye”. Border Crossings, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 21-34.
[5] BOUSQUET, Aurélie (2010). «Wim Delvoye, super entrepreneur ». Online. 32025fd2803d.pdf?download=true. Consulted November 17, 2016.

Photo credit:

Wim Delvoye, All-American Girl, 2005-2006. Tattooed Pigskin. Courtesy of the artist.


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