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Canadian Art

Review

Wim Delvoye: Blame it on Paris

Musée du Louvre, Paris May 30 to Sep 17 2012
Wim Delvoye <em>Kashan</em> 2010 Installation view © Wim Delvoye/SODRAC (2012) / photo © 2012 Musée du Louvre/Olivier Ouadah  Wim Delvoye Kashan 2010 Installation view © Wim Delvoye/SODRAC (2012) / photo © 2012 Musée du Louvre/Olivier Ouadah

Wim Delvoye <em>Kashan</em> 2010 Installation view © Wim Delvoye/SODRAC (2012) / photo © 2012 Musée du Louvre/Olivier Ouadah

It is not uncommon nowadays to head to the Louvre to experience contemporary art. Since the 1989 addition of I.M. Pei's pyramid, and particularly since the advent of a 2003 curatorial initiative, living artists have been making increasing contributions to this “museum of the republic.” Permanent works by such artists as Anselm Kiefer and Cy Twombly have been commissioned, and temporary exhibitions sometimes take the form of artists’ “dialogues” with the museum’s historical collection—including the current exhibition by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye.

Delvoye works across a range of media and motifs that synthesize his engagements in high art history and popular culture. Past works include Cloaca (2000–10) a series of industrial-strength poop-producing digestive systems; his Chinese Art Farm (2003–10), where live pigs were tattooed with sexed-up Walt Disney characters and Louis Vuitton logos; and SexRays (2000–1), x-ray images of barium-painted humans engaged in sex. Such explorations into the scatological and sexual body make this Louvre invitation seem, in the artist’s own words, “brave.”

“Wim Delvoye au Louvre” begins in the hyper-lit space of the museum’s large glass pyramid. There, a stunning, swirling spiral of delicate, lace-like, silvery material appears to hover in mid-air. The elongated shape is a scaled-down, double-ended, high-Gothic cathedral spire, stretched and spun out of laser-cut stainless steel. Its upper spire points to heaven and the duplicate, lower spire points to earth. The sculpture converses and argues with its architectural surrounds, with the doubling spires echoing the Louvre’s dual pyramids—the luminous upper pyramid signalling high art, and the lower pyramid, which descends into the Louvre’s shopping mall, pointing to crass commercialism. The dense Gothic filigree of finely cut steel thrills in a decorative excess that the austere and classical geometry of the modernist pyramid denies. Lest we suppose the artist has abandoned his earthier preoccupations for some spiritual high road, the 2010 work’s title, Suppo (for suppository) indicates otherwise.

Many of Delvoye’s works here share similar concerns: a respectful engagement with the craft and styles of historical art; the modernization of these styles through contemporary materials and technologies; a resistance to elitist art; an appreciation for the sensational populism of Gothic, Baroque and contemporary mass culture; and a conflation of the binaries of high and low, public and private.

Delvoye’s remaining 37 works are interspersed throughout the decorative arts galleries of the Richelieu wing, in the royal apartments of Napoléon III and the Gothic galleries. Here the artist can engage, for example, the 19th-century academic bronzes of Mathurin Moreau, described by Delvoye as “the Murakamis of their time.”

Finding Delvoye’s pieces can be tricky, as they are camouflaged within the glut of design. The rooms are so laden with motifs, Delvoye has remarked, that they appear to be tattooed all over. For this treasure hunt within treasures, it helps to have a keen eye for subversive detail. One can then notice subtle relationships that have been developed with the historical pieces. The painted hunt scenes of majestic stags, for example, have a quiet, if troubled, relation to Delvoye’s polished bronze sculpture, Trophy (2010), of a stag and doe kissing and copulating, missionary style.

The artist has described this exhibition as “Wim Delvoye for Dummies,” calculated to introduce his work to a general museum public. Visitors find an artist’s sampler: tucked into the china cabinet are twisting Rococo-styled porcelain figurines and circular saw blades enameled with Delft-china designs; rabbit slippers, made with taxidermied rabbits, sit inside a museum case; dynamically swirling mythical figures in silver or nickelled bronze, blossoming into 3-D Rorschach expansions, speed the Baroque to its logical conclusion; and a pair of entangled white marble pelvises reflect Delvoye’s concern with bodily intimacy.

On an ornate table sits the magnificent Twisted Dump Truck (2012). Like Suppo, it has morphed from an intricately cut steel cathedral. On the floor are four rubber tires, hand-cut with delicate tracery designs. Duchamp is clearly present.

Whimsically weird are three pigs casually “sitting around” a large elegant salon. The lifelike “tapisdermied” pigs wear, in lieu of their own skins, form-fitting oriental silk carpeting. Despite their pig-ness, or perhaps because of it, they seem very much at home in these opulent surroundings.

In the grand dining room, eight large nickelled bronze rings are spaced along a long table. Each is a twisted variation of Christ on the cross. Escaping its own tortured imagery, the icon playfully curls itself into helix, double-helix and Möbius-strip contortions.

At the opening of the exhibition, visitors would have seen Tim (2006–8). Delvoye tattooed Tim’s back, which was then sold to a collector. Tim is contractually bound to display the work at exhibitions, and when he dies, the owner may take possession of his flayed skin. The confluence between bodies, the art market and popular culture is evident here.

Delvoye, recognizing the centrality of corporate identity in contemporary culture, has expressed admiration for the successful branding of the Louvre and of France. Aware that he, as art star, has also become a brand, the artist welcomes his partnership with the French Louvre brands. This tongue-in-cheek understanding of today’s art industry, along with the artist’s authentic engagement with his own art processes, makes this exhibition an exciting contribution to the long, complex history of the Louvre.

This article was first published online on August 23, 2012.

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