ART FARM, 2004, photo documentation of project in which the artist tattoos images onto live pigs at his farm in Yang Zhen, China. Courtesy the artist.

ART FARM, 2004, photo documentation of project in which the artist tattoos images onto live pigs at his farm in Yang Zhen, China. Courtesy the artist.

Bringing Home the Bacon

Wim Delvoye

Features from Sept/Oct 2007
China Belgium

Internationally celebrated for his stained-glass soccer goalie nets, monumental steel Gothic trucks and tractors and sophisticated Cloaca digestive tract machines that turn food into excrement, Belgium-born Wim Delvoye became a part-time resident of China in 2004 when he rented a farm to tattoo pigs. Delvoye wasn’t interested in breeding hogs or raising them for meat—he is a vegetarian—but rather to use their skins to make art that literally grows. In 2005 he purchased a new, larger farm about one hour outside of Beijing, where his workers tattoo and pamper his precious property. ArtAsiaPacific caught up with the 42-year-old artist at his studio in Ghent, Belgium, to discuss his Art Farm and other projects in China.


When did you first start tattooing pigs and what was your original concept for the work?

I started in 1992, did one or two pigs in 1994 and in 1995 I tattooed 15, but they were dead pigs; I got the skins from slaughterhouses. I started to tattoo live pigs in 1997. I was interested in the idea of the pig as a bank—a piggy bank. I didn’t have the concept formulated yet, but I decided to place some small drawings onto these living organisms and let them grow. From the beginning, there was the idea that the pig would literally grow in value, but I also knew that they were considered pretty worthless. It’s hard to make something as prestigious as art from a pig. It’s not kosher.

How do you tattoo the pigs and what do you tattoo on them?

In the early works, the imagery was as banal and trivial as possible: skulls, hearts, crosses. It was an encyclopedia of trivial things. I wasn’t really interested in the pig’s anatomy. But once I started tattooing live pigs, I was forced to take an interest in their anatomy, and that affected the composition. I gained new respect for the animals and began making tattoos for them. For example, the tattoo would follow the butt and shoulders and, as the pig grew, it became paler while the lines became thicker.

To tattoo a pig, we sedate it, shave it and apply Vaseline to its skin. We are currently tattooing Chinese drawings on the pigs. After all, 2007 is Year of the Pig. There was a period when Disney princesses such as Ariel, Cinderella and Mulan fascinated us. We regularly use Louis Vuitton designs. This year it’s the Murakami cherries. We’re still a couple years behind, but we’re getting there.

Are the tattoos based on your drawings?

Yes, except for the Disney and Louis Vuitton designs. When I was still tattooing pigs in Belgium, I aimed at competing with painting. I wanted to show that what I could do on a pig could be as good as Raphael or Murillo, sugary Baroque art with holy virgins, happy children and cupids. I would take a Murillo painting and tattoo it with the same colors and shadowing. This kind of highbrow tattooing was an obsession for a year. Now we have returned to the more “classic” tattoo designs.

I’m known for doing tattoos very quickly, but don’t give me any human subjects. It would be a shame. I’d tattoo them like pigs!

What is your relationship with the pigs? Do they have names?

Yes, we name them; the name is often tattooed on the pig. It’s part of the personalization of the industrial product. For example, a pig with a tattoo that reads “I love Jamie” is called Jamie, and the name sometimes becomes the title of the finished artwork.

What kind of lifestyle do the pigs have on their way to becoming art?

They are really spoiled. Last October, for example, we ordered coal for winter. I didn’t want the pigs to get cold so I ordered a lot. Two big mountains of coal came in and the whole village was immediately whispering. It was insulting to the village honchos that I treated my pigs so well. They couldn’t understand why a guy with a few pig keepers and a flycatcher needed so much coal.

How are the pigs exhibited?

I prefer to show the pigs alive. In a perfect world, I would just show the Cloaca shit machines and live pigs—eating and excreting together. I recently did that for the first time at the Xin Beijing Art Gallery.

There are two schools of thought about how the pigs should be exhibited. Some people like the flat skins hanging on the wall because you still see bits of the head and legs. Others prefer the hairy skins stretched like a canvas. If I have a complete skin with hooves and ears intact, and I like the tattoo, then I stuff it. It becomes more sculptural that way. I used to have the stuffed pigs standing, but now I prefer them sitting, like a stone lion outside a Chinese restaurant.

Have collectors actually bought your live pigs?

Yes, but they have never taken them home, which was my original plan. Some people with nice gardens seriously considered it though. Regardless, the pigs grew and their owners’ profits increased.

Why did you decide to set up a pig farm in China?

I wanted to do something in China. I considered continuing the engineering of Cloaca, but that wasn’t realistic. I’ve wanted an art farm for a long time. Previously pig-raising had been a nomadic activity, wherever the occasion arose. My work has evolved in different ways, but I always come back to pigs. In 1997, I only did four pigs; in 1998, two; then I went to San Francisco and did three, and following that, three in Moscow. But my nomadic life has settled; the tattoo project finally found a permanent address.

How big is the farm?

It’s huge. We’ve had two farms; we rented one and then bought one. The first was romantic, but small. When the British television show Art Safari came to shoot, there was hardly room to move. The second farm is much bigger. We double the number of pigs each year now. Usually we have fewer than 20 pigs being tattooed, but currently there are about 30, with a dozen workers. There is a farm manager, people who care for the pigs, a professional fly swatter, four female tattoo artists, a skinner and a tanner. It’s all very costly.

How do the tattoos change as the pigs grow?

Every hour the tattoo artist works now saves a few hours of work later. Every week the pigs grow five or 10 kilos heavier so the tattoos are constantly expanding. I send a photocopy of a drawing and instruct them where to apply it. If there is any delay and the pig grows, the artists have to go back to the copy center and enlarge the drawing. But if all goes well, the drawings grow with the pig.

How much time do you spend at the farm?

Last year I was there almost every month. Beijing is much bigger than Ghent and there are more things to do. I’ve been really well received in China. A lot of foreigners go there looking for opportunities, but I chose to stay in the countryside. Foreigners were already opening galleries in Beijing when I arrived, but no one else was outsourcing artwork. 

Are you friendly with artists in the Beijing art community?

Yes, and although I pretend to remember their names, they are hard to recall. I end up saying, “there you are, the one who does the candy-color smiling faces.” I concentrate on one artist—I call him the Joseph Beuys of Beijing, the boss there—Ai Weiwei. We like each other. He lived in New York and his English is very good.

And I went to China with a reputation. A lot of the artists I met already knew about Cloaca. I avoid the ex-pats and in so doing I am even more accepted by the Chinese. I’ve exhibited once at the Duolun Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai and twice at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. If I’m not careful, I will become a Chinese artist!

Are you working on any other projects in China?

Yes, my doll, a Wim action figure with accessories. My whole life story is reduced to a caricature. The box set, which is like a GI Joe, includes an artist action figure, a tattoo gun, a Cloaca machine, a mobile phone, an outfit for wearing to a gallery opening and boots for the farm. It’s manufactured in Shenzhen. We’re working on an improved second generation and have plans for a third that is specifically about the Art Farm, including plastic tattooed pigs. We’ve learned a lot from Mattel, the toy manufacturer, and even altered their slogan to read, “You can tell it’s not Mattel.”