PARIS - At every exhibit opening, he takes off his shirt, sits on a pedestal, his back to the public, waiting for a visitor he will never see and doesn’t want to hear. Turning on his MP3 player in order to block out cruel comments and hurtful jokes is part of the ritual.
Tim Steiner is regularly on display in galleries and museums. He has never broken down in public, but a storm is brewing somewhere inside him.
Six years ago, Wim Delvoye, an unconventional Belgian artist known for his singular ideas, decided to tattoo Steiner. He transformed Steiner’s back into a piece of art and signed it, just over the young man’s right buttock.
When it was sold for 150,000 euros, split between the gallery, the artist and the model, the work of art suddenly made headlines. Its title, “Tim, 2006,” implies that Steiner is the art, not just a canvass.
Since then, the now 36-year-old Swiss man lives in a surreal idleness. He spends his time between Zurich where he works as a babysitter and London’s upscale neighborhoods, where his fiancée works for the famous gallery Haunch of Venison.
The first time Steiner and Delvoye met, the artist showed him the tattooed pigskin that he would use as a model. Delvoye wanted to draw something that meant nothing to Steiner, as opposed to a traditional tattoo, which usually has a personal meaning for the person wearing it.
He chose a Madonna with a Mexican skull, bats, swallows and a bed of red and blue roses. The two men agreed on a couple of changes, including dropping the picture of a monkey opening his behind. “Right on my neck! I said no,” laughs Steiner.
In 2008, a gallery in Zurich sold the piece to a young art collector from Hamburg, a German, like Ilse Koch, the wife of a Nazi officer who collected the tattooed skin of Jewish prisoners. “People made the link. It was bound to happen, although we had not thought of it beforehand,” says Delvoye.
Steiner is a proud exhibitionist with a strong tendency towards submission. “I am a Wim Delvoye,” he often says. But his fiancée reminds him that he is just the canvas. Steiner admits that he often feels the weight of the tattoo but also of the artist, whose personality dominates him. “He is a genius. I love him and I hate him at the same time,” says the model.
Steiner does have some regrets. “In six years, I’ve only seen Wim alone for 30 minutes.” He wishes the artist were more present in his life, telling him that he is proud of him, that he is doing a good job. But Delvoye is very clear about their relationship: “We became friends but I had to explain that he was 2006 work and that it's 2012 now, and therefore I’m in another period of my work.” Talk about cynicism. Wim Delvoye is a hyperactive man, always very busy. He does worry, though, that his creation might feel used and manipulated.
“People aren’t interested in me and that’s completely normal,” says Steiner. “I knew this from the start. I am not an artist; I am the guy with the tattoo. But I am part of the art world now.”
Before entering this world, which led him all the way to the Louvre, Steiner worked at a gas station. The best time of his life, he says. He spent 15 years, smoking pot and filling the tanks of rich Zurich residents. He had a very comfortable childhood. His father was a businessman, his mother stayed at home. After turbulent teenage years, two years in the Swiss army gave this masochist the order and discipline he needed.
Selling one’s body
This odd transaction could not have happened in France, but oddly in Switzerland it was made possible thanks to the country’s prostitution laws. Steiner is now on display several times a year, but no one can force him to do anything against his will. When he dies, his skin will be cut up and framed. His family had to agree to it. Steiner says he doesn’t care what happens after he dies.
Delvoye wanted his piece to be a criticism of the art world. The critics, on the other hand saw it as an attack on human dignity. “Are you allowed to do anything in the name of art?” asks the Belgian artist. “You can speculate on Tim, sell him, and resell him. Even the way he will die is subject to speculation! If he dies of cancer, it’s ok. If he dies alone in a house, it’s more of a problem. It will have consequences on the price because the tattoo will be damaged. But of course we don’t want anything to happen to him because we like him a lot.”
Steiner is a healthy young man whose life changed when he arrived in Tasmania, Australia, in 2011, for an exhibit at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). There, he posed for the first time for a long period, four months. Every day he spent hours on his pedestal. “When I would get home at night, I would collapse. I told myself, ‘You're a monkey!’ but then I realized I was actually good at sitting on a pedestal.”
This sounds a lot like it came from Kubark, the CIA interrogation manual: a prisoner forced to sit in an uncomfortable position until he breaks, with all the self-inflicted pain that comes from such a position, the moral determination to stay silent, the feeling of superiority that the prisoner feels at first, and then the internal conflict that leads to the final breakdown.
Obviously, the Tasmanian museum’s intentions were not to torture Steiner. He was asked to become a sort of docent, which he accepted. It was a revelation for him; as a showman he loved interacting with visitors.
“He made visitors cry,” remembers Olivier Varenne, curator and buyer for David Walsh, a famous Australian collector and founder of the MONA. Walsh has already bought Christian Boltanski, a French artist whose life is filmed 24/7 and streamed live to the museum. Now Walsh wants to buy Steiner. “We would love that, but taking control of his life, it is a scary responsibility,” admits Varenne.
Steiner dreams of making crowds cry in Tasmania. Delvoye would rather hold an auction. “Wim would like the whole world to be able to buy Tim,” says Varenne.
The Belgian artist wants to make headlines, auction off a person to spark controversy and get a reaction from the market. But Steiner is getting impatient. He wants to meet “his” audience, tell his story and Wim’s, their common cause. He says he doesn’t want to repeat the past six years.
“Either I jump head first in the art world or I stop everything,” he says. He is a piece of art with the power to say: “Enough with this farce, I won’t end up on a shelf, collecting dust.”