Beauty reigns? Wim Delvoye and the ornament

Date and time
Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Beauty reigns? Wim Delvoye and the ornament

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.

Composition: Ornament

«What mankind created without ornament in earlier millennia was thrown away without a thought and abandoned to destruction. We possess no joiner’s benches from the Carolingian era, but every trifle that displays the least ornament has been collected and cleaned and palatial buildings have been erected to house it [1]

- Adolf Loos

In a book published in 2003 [2], author Yves Michaud identified a transition from object to experience in contemporary art. From the 20th century on, minimalist or conceptual artistic practices proposed a “purification” of the art object through dematerialization or formal simplification. By contrast, many contemporary artists turn to ornamentation of objects in their practices, seeing an opportunity to reinvest ideas that have been occulted by art’s autonomization: beauty, skill, craft, decoration or materiality. Such is the case with Wim Delvoye, who calls on the commodification of Chinese (Carved Tyres series) or Iranian (Suitcases series) craft by hiring skilled craftspeople to transform everyday objects.

These carefully carved tires and delicately embossed suitcases recall the paradox of ornament as defined by Antoine Picon [3]. While designed as a superficial element that could potentially be removed without affecting the structural integrity of an object, ornament also serves to identify the quality of its conception. For example, Picon points to ornament’s elementary function in Vitruvius’s architectural treatises. It makes visible the effects of proportion and order put forward by architects, thus proving their talent. In Delvoye’s practice, the paradox of ornament is carried to the extreme as objects shift from functional to decorative. If the use value of the now extremely ornamented object decreases, its exchange value increases considerably. This recalls what many authors, borrowing from Jacques Derrida, identify as the supplementary [4] aspect of ornament: if ornament is a supplement of the object, it will eventually supplement it, replace it.

But what to think of ornament when applied directly onto the skin of a living being – a pig – that is forced to become ornamental? At the heart of the tension between beauty and ugliness, ornament indicates what Yves Michaud has humorously designated as one of the prime contemporary conditions: the evanescence of art in favour of a triumph of aesthetics. In his introduction to L’art à l’état gazeux, he ironically states: “it is crazy how beautiful the world is. Beautiful are the packaged products, the brand clothing with their stylized logos, the muscular bodies, remodelled or rejuvenated by plastic surgery, the made-up faces, treated or lifted, the personalized piercings and tattoos […]. Even the corpses are beautiful – neatly wrapped in plastic covers, aligned by the ambulances. If it is not yet beautiful, it has to be. Beauty reigns. In any case it has become imperative: be beautiful or, at least, save us from your ugliness [5]”. In the Tattooed Pigskins series, Delvoye’s gesture oscillates between an obsession with ornamental perfectibility and the horror of ornament imposed as a social condition.

As you are touring the show, note the different functions of ornament in Wim Delvoye’s work. What does ornament do? How is it employed by the artist?

Is it possible to propose parallels between the use of ornament in Wim Delvoye’s work and other cultural phenomena? If so, which ones come to mind?

Daniel Fiset
DHC/ART Education

[1] LOOS, ADOLF (1913). “Ornament and Crime”. Cahiers d’aujourd’hui, (5), p. 20.
[2] MICHAUD, Yves (2003). L’art à l’état gazeux: essai sur le triomphe de l’esthétique. Paris: Stock.
[3] PICON, Antoine (2013). Ornament: The Politics of Architecture and Subjectivity. Sussex: Wiley.
[4] DERRIDA, Jacques (1967). De la grammatologie. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.
[5] MICHAUD, Yves (2003). Op.cit., pp. 1.

Photo: Wim Delvoye, Car Tyre, 2011. Hand-carved car tire. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin.

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