On Monday night in Basel, Galerie Perrotin hosted a garden party for Wim Delvoye at the Museum Tinguely, and as attendees walked up to a well-manicured lawn dotted with servers doling out quiche and champagne, the whole scene backlit by a glowing exhibition inside, they could see through the windows that one of Delvoye’s machines—bearing the title Cloaca—was turning food to excrement.
“I was always interested in the scatalogical,” Delvoye told me Thursday afternoon. “It’s like excess, excess gone wild, something unnecessary. And the scatalogical doesn’t take place in the canon of aesthetic beauty. I was attracted by that.”
It was a few days after his show had opened, and Delvoye and I were sitting in the belly of the beast: the middle of the convention center that hosts Art Basel, at one of the outside tables with the distinctive aroma of raclette cheese filling the air . We had walked over from the Perrotin booth, which included a wing shared with Simon Lee, both presenting work by Hans Hartung. There was an open table, I grabbed some Cokes, we sat down, and Delvoye flirted with a woman who came by to say hello. “Will you call me later?” “Oh yes, and you have a nice back!” I took out some cigarettes and Delvoye bummed one. A group of older ladies sat down with us and began to eat their melted cheese with potatoes.
I asked Delvoye if, given the timing of the show at the Tinguely (it opened on Wednesday, the day after the VIP First Open preview of Art Basel), the Cloaca at all reminded him of the metabolism of the art market.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the market and also, in a larger sense, the machines,” he said. “And I hear many artists are here, so I shouldn’t feel embarrassed. For artists who don’t live in London or New York, it’s very good, because here you meet everyone is relaxed here. Basel is special—the whole city contributes in some way. If you go to New York for the Armory Show, the taxi driver is not aware of the Armory Show, the barman doesn’t know what’s happening. But here the whole community is involved in Art Basel.”
The Cloaca was shown in New York for the first time at the New Museum in January 2002, in Delvoye’s first solo show at a U.S. museum. In a post-9/11 Gotham, not all were ready for the Cloaca. The Brooklyn Rail was “disgusted” and, instead, recommended “good work on shit” produced by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luis Buñuel, Karen Finley, Peter Saul, Joseph Beuys, and others. The Cloaca was fed meals from fancy restaurants near the museum in Downtown Manhattan. People thought it was a waste of money—or worse.
“There was this obsession about anthrax when we were going to install and they were saying, ‘Oh you said this is a bio machine,’ ” Delvoye recalled. “I didn’t know they were going to get obsessed with bio-terror!”
Since then, Cloaca has traveled to a number of cities, in a process that mimics the human body—turning food to waste in 27-hour cycles with tubes curling through containers. But the Cloaca also acts as a mirror to the cities and cultures it meets.
“It’s very cosmopolitan—if you are from Chile, feces is very cosmopolitan,” Delvoye said. “You go to New York and you have this bio-terror obsession, and then the same machine goes to Lyon [France] and people are like, ‘So, what is the machine going to eat today?’ The same machine goes to Vienna and people are sharing details about their childhood and psychoanalytic theories about their relationship with their families. Then the machine goes to Düsseldorf, where the city is very Protestant, and they are shocked, and they say this is criminal because there are so many poor people in the world and this art is just feeding this machine. And then you go to Toronto and all the Canadians are all very nice and say, ‘How do you make it?’ They want to make it in their house, too—very unphilosophical, they never have a Freudian or a Lacanian thought. They just say, ‘I want to do it too!’ “
There’s much more in the show at the Tinguely—other intricate machines and high-production madness like Cement Truck (2012–16), which is the size of a cement truck. There’s a room of stained glass windows, a nod to Delvoye’s Flemish Catholic upbringing, but these windows show skeletons performing explicit sexual acts. Then there is a video—a very close-up video that is hard to figure out, but you know it is gross, somehow.
“It’s a slow-motion movie that reminds you of the underwater films of Jacques Cousteau and David Hamilton, his soft-core movies, but it’s actually blackheads squeezed out,” Delvoye said. “If you look at blackheads and pupils on YouTube, my movie is the mother of thousands and thousands of pimple movies. It’s a fetish thing. I still have marks on my skin because I had a girlfriend who wouldn’t stop squeezing them. She got very upset that she didn’t have the opportunity to squeeze more. ‘I want more! I want more!’ she would scream. We dated for three and a half years. I’m still recovering.”
Also in the show is Tim, the Swiss man who sold his skin to become an artwork once Delvoye tattooed it. And then there are Rorschach sculptures and swirl sculptures, and wheels of Jesus Mobius strips and large-scale tires.
It’s all an extended carnival of provocation and bizarre beauty, playing out at one of the more gobsmackingly gorgeous museums in town. Up next for Delvoye is something much smaller, but also more accessible, perhaps: a show at the new Galeire Perrotin location on New York’s Lower East Side.
“It’ll be more coherent because it’s all in one space,” he said. “It’ll be sculptures, maybe carved tires. It’s a little more improvised now.
It’s unclear if New Yorkers will once again see the Cloaca consume the city’s pricy meals and then shit them out, just like New Yorkers do. The artist wouldn’t divulge more details, but before we got up, he took another look around the fair. Delvoye wasn’t sure if he’d go back in.
“What’s so special about Basel and the fair is there’s no other reason to be here,” he said. “That’s so beautiful, and also a bit morbid. It’s how you mark time—before and after Basel.”