The Man Who Sold His Body For Art, And Where He'll Hang For Posterity

"Tattoo Tim Tours Now online. $15 Bargain."
"Tattoo Tim Tours Now online. $15 Bargain."
Marie Ottavi

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.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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