Wim Delvoye mixing high and low

mid-career retrospective at the Mudam, Luxembourg, until 8 January 2017

December 2016

Subversive and witty, Wim Delvoye's elevation of the everyday into high culture began with a tiled floor embellished with motifs of human excrement at documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany, in 1992. Back then, the Belgian artist was only 27 but his critical, cheeky way of parodying sophistication and ornamentation was already attracting attention. It was the first piece by the artist that was seen by curator Enrico Lunghi. Fast forward to 2016, when Lunghi has curated this mid-career retrospective on Delvoye's extensive body of work. As Lunghi bows out of being Mudam's director at the end of this year after resigning in October, he does so after putting together a show on an artist whose work he has long admired.

From ornate concrete mixers and cement trucks to excrement-making machines and weapons, via twisted Christs and Rorschach bronzes, embossed suitcases and a Maserati, Delvoye mixes high and low. It transpires that even as a young boy, he was prolific. On display is a wall of drawings, depicting people, animals, houses, windmills and vehicles, made during his early childhood. Significantly, Delvoye exhibited them at Mamco, Geneva, in 2005 in an exhibition titled 'Early Works, 1968-1971', elevating them from being childhood drawings into career-defining ones.

Presented for the first time are two of Delvoye's 'Spud Gun' (2016) sculptures named after a children's toy. “Each 'Spud Gun' has this bricolage and boyish aspect and they actually shoot,” says the Belgian artist. “My inspiration comes directly from amateur movies posted on YouTube by rebels in Syria and how they are creative with making their own weapons.”

The chronological exhibition opens with Delvoye's 'Concrete Mixers' (1991) in carved and varnished teak which were made in collaboration with craftsmen in Indonesia – a form of outsourcing pioneered by artists such as Alighiero Boetti, who hired weavers in Afghanistan to make his 'Mappe' tapestries. Delvoye's early cultural appropriation varies from his ironing boards emblazoned with Flemish coats of arms to display cabinets filled with enamel-painted sword blades made in the tradition of Delft ceramics.

The most eyebrow-raising activity would be Delvoye's 'Art Farm' (2003-2010) in Beijing, where Delvoye tattooed the backs of live pigs with Louis Vuitton monograms, skulls and flowers, chiming with the trend of western companies using Chinese manufacturing. Collectors could see their investment grow as a pig's tattoo was enhanced on a regular basis. When the pig eventually died, its back was removed, framed and exhibited. Delvoye, a vegetarian, staunchly defended his farm's conditions while stating that each pig became a veritable “piggy bank”.

Two of Welvoye's 10 'Cloaca' faeces-producing machines are on show: 'Cloaca Quattro' (2004) and 'Super Cloaca' (2007). Pointedly, they bring to mind both Piero Manzoni's 'Merda d'artista' (1961), a tin of artist's shit, and Jean Tinguely's machine sculptures. Typically tongue-in-cheek, Delvoye created a typographic fusion of Ford and Coca-Cola in his first version, a quip at branding and consumerism. Similarly, the artist prints his initials in a similar typography to Walt Disney.

The influence of Gothic architecture on Delvoye's artmaking is evident in his recent sculptures such as  'Concrete Mixer' (2012) and 'Cement Truck' (2016). Made with high-precision laser-cutters, they evoke the intricate beauty of Gothic cathedrals that has been subverted in an irreverent way by the agnostic artist. Delvoye's sculptures are emblematic of the sublime yet the idea of faith is, literally, churned round in a mixer. Equally, Delvoye sublimates the mundane in his embossed suitcases and tyres.

Increasingly, Delvoye has been harnessing the latest technologies in his art. This is evidenced in 'Dual Möbius Quad Corpus' (2010) of a twisted Christ, which powerfully encapsulates the twisting of the crown of thorns or the writhing body during crucifixion. Indeed, this confrontation and fascination with Christianity underpins much of Delvoye's work. By contrast, Delvoye's patinated bronze 'Rorschach' sculptures from 2012 are of entwined figures in the throes of passion reminiscent of Rodin.

The dual themes of religion and passion are juxtaposed in Delvoye's stained glass 'Chapelle', a permanent piece made for the inauguration of the Ieoh Ming Pei-designed Mudam in 2006. Whilst the chapel employs the motifs of Gothic architecture, the stained glass windows comprise X-rays of figures embracing and having sex as well as of diverse body parts. For the 10th anniversary of the Mudam, Delvoye is once again breaking taboos, humorously pushing the barriers of acceptability more than ever with spectacular aplomb.