Private view

The Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has created a machine that turns shit into art. He also tattoos pigs on a farm in China and sells the hides. Now he has tattooed me
June 18, 2005

In the past, artists created art from life; nowadays the most interesting ones create life from art. For centuries we have relied on the definition of art as a useless object, worth contemplating. Artists, we were told, stood aloof from society and the market—they could deal in ideas with no use-value. This idea of art reached its reductio ad absurdum with Duchamp's readymades—useful objects transformed into useless vehicles for ideas by being presented in an art gallery. But sometime in the last 30 years, one artist (it is hard to say exactly who) had a further thought: why not exploit my independence from the market to make prototypes for a new and better world? I will make art that is useful.

And now they are all at it. There is Carsten Höller and Rosemary Trockel's house for chickens and humans, in which people and animals would live together. There is Andrea Zittel and her mobile homes: desks and chickens as works of art. And there is Liam Gillick with his liberating architectural designs—most recently the canopy for the new home office building, which is chicken-free. These artists and their theorists call such works "parallel structures"—alternative ways of organising the world, developed free from the pressures of global capital. It is tosh, of course. Today's artists produce slavishly for the luxury market, and their entry into the worlds of design and architecture is just another shameless marketing strategy, devised to diversify their brand and maintain their position as the highest of cultural producers. Still, it has created some interesting, if queasy, art.

One of the artists involved in this new utopian activity is the Belgian Wim Delvoye. At first Delvoye's work appears to be ironic. He has created realistic-looking palatial marble floors out of triangles of salami. And he has made a series of x-rays of people having sex. But his chef d'oeuvre is Cloaca, a machine which imitates the human digestive system. You put food in one end and it gets chewed up and piped through two gently rotating washing machines full of bacteria, then heated a little, and guess what comes out the pipe at the bottom? Yes. Shit. Real shit. I should know: I recently submitted a sample of my own and a sample from Delvoye's machine for tests at Reading University's microbiology department. They were remarkably similar.

Cloaca has been exhibited in museums all over the world and was recently on show in Brussels in an exhibition implausibly titled "Visionary Belgium." Delvoye freeze-dries the crap from the machine, packs it in a perspex box and sells it as a limited edition, signed and dated, at £2,000 a pop. He says that he is now building a factory of Cloacas, machines churning out shit 24 hours a day, and will be selling shares in his business enterprise which, thanks to the intellectual and economic trends in the contemporary art market, promises to be very profitable.

So is Delvoye saying art is shit—or that shit is art? He is a trickster, a very 20th-century kind of artist who knows the recipe for society and culture but puts the ingredients together in a different order—and so creates a different order. He understands that our economic systems and artistic tastes are full of contradictions. More than being what the art world calls a "critique of consumerism," Delvoye's machine is a real entrepreneurial device. But in his factory, machines take on human characteristics: they shit and create art. It is a utopian project—albeit at an early stage.

I have just visited a village in China, where the next stage of Delvoye's artistic ambition is taking shape. He and I drove to the outskirts of Beijing, past picturesque Chinese farmers on bicycles and through rusting ironwork gates in a village where Delvoye has established a small farm with 12 pigs. The pigs are reared not for meat—but for art. Every week they are put under a light anaesthetic and tattooed. Some have hell's angels motifs on their flanks, others mermaids on their thighs, and others the Louis Vuitton logos on their backs. One day the pigs will be slaughtered and their tattooed hides will be sold for tens of thousands of euros as works of art. A lot of different cultural meanings are being played with here. The status-enhancing aspects of owning works of art is being mocked; the tattoo, an originally criminal kind of artwork, is being elevated to high art; and the ghastly conditions of factory-farmed pigs in China is being replaced by an idealistic and beautiful "art farm."

I wanted to join in. I asked Delvoye if I could be tattooed by his pig tattooist. He agreed, on the condition that a pig was given the same tattoo as me. I was taking a human form of decoration that had been applied to an animal and re-placing it on a human body. A Chinese curator from Beijing's Millennium museum dropped by while the needle was being applied. She told me that I was adding a new layer: "It means we are all, humans and animals, tattooed. We are all tattooed, that is marked by our backgrounds, histories and societies." But I knew there was even more meaning than that: the design, drawn beautifully by Delvoye on my right shoulder, was of Mickey Mouse crucified, with Minnie weeping at the base like the Virgin Mary. And I'm Jewish.