MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Is a tattoo art? How about a pig with tattoos? These questions have been brought in to sharp focus after Chinese authorities censored a major art show called ShContemporary. It recently opened in Shanghai.
NPR's Louisa Lim paid a visit.
LOUISA LIM: I'm here at ShContemporary, it's Shanghai's largest art fair. And this year, one thing that everybody's talking about is something that didn't actually happen. Eight pigs tattooed with Louis Vuitton logos and Walt Disney characters were supposed to be exhibited as part of an artwork by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, but these were banned by the Chinese authorities.
Now, Wim is here with me now. Wim, do you know why your pigs weren't allowed to be shown?
Mr. WIM DELVOYE (Belgian Artist): Not because of sanitation issues, not because of animal rights, not because of ideological considerations, not because there's something anti-communist in it, not because there's nudity in it - but this time, they were not allowed because it was not art.
LIM: One of your artworks that has made it here is actually a person, a Swiss man called Tim, who has these tattoos that you've designed all over his back. Now, as part of this exhibition, Tim actually has to undress. He's now unbuttoning his shirt and sit on a stool so that visitors can see his back, which is completely covered by different colored tattoos. There's a large Virgin Mary in the middle. There's a skull on top of that. Wim, maybe you could explain why you chose these symbols, what they represent for you?
Mr. DELVOYE: You know, it's like an art class of what tattoo represents. I mean, they're the favorites of the tattoo world. There's the praying Virgin, there's the skull, roses. We have bats, we have birds. and then two Chinese children riding koi carps, yeah.
LIM: It's incredibly colorful. But it must have been extremely painful to do. I mean, how does it feel, Tim, to be a living canvas?
Mr. TIM STEINER: It's a very exciting new feeling. I've always been looking to see how extreme I could go in certain areas. And as soon as I was told about this concept by one of my favorite, favorite artist, if not the favorite artist, Wim Delvoye, I knew that I'm getting myself into something that I can predict how it's going to go. And I was very excited to become part of this.
LIM: I mean, what makes Tim's back art? Actually, it's just another tattoo.
Mr. DELVOYE: It's art because it got sold. It's art because it's in the art context. There's things happening to Tim that makes him more and more art. When Tim would die, he will be an art piece.
LIM: Now, you say it got sold. It was sold for about $215,000 to a collector. But he can only get his artwork after you die. That's correct, isn't it? He can only remove it from your back. Do you not feel that's slightly macabre?
Mr. STEINER: I don't think so. And I'm asked many times how do I feel about that. I won't be here anymore. It doesn't matter. And since we're living in the world where so many people are looking for their famous 15 minutes of fame, I have a certain permanence going on that other people at the moment don't have. And that really is if the project finishes the way it should and the skin will be removed and properly framed, that I will exist forever, at least a part of me will. And I find that concept more exciting than morbid.
BLOCK: That's Tim Steiner and artist Wim Delvoye talking to NPR's Louisa Lim in Shanghai. And we you can see photos of Tim's back and of the tattooed pigs at npr.org.
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