Merda d'Artista, or, You Call That Shit Art?
Digestion and excretion. Elimination of solid waste. Making number two.
Taking a big ol' dump. The names for this natural bodily process are many,
and for eons upon eons, humans have taken an inordinate amount of interest
in their own shit production. Heck, even primates at the zoo are frequently
seen flinging or consuming their own feces, so there's a long evolutionary
tradition at work. But to what end?
Piero Manzoni: Merda d'Artista (1961).
The culmination of the evolutionary process, some might say, is the human
desire to create. The human creative impulse takes form across a broad
spectrum, ranging from the profane to the sacred -- from one end we create
shit, and from the other, art.
Thus is seems only fitting (that is, if you
follow my dubious line of reasoning) that the two would merge to form the
ultimate in human creation.
It is precisely this merger which Italian artist Piero Manzoni depicted in
his 1961 piece "Merda d'Artista," or "Artist's Shit": He
sealed his crap in a bunch of cans, signed and mounted them, and sold them
There are also two relatively well-known modern artists who have
chosen to explore this line of imagery, to better our understanding of the
human condition. Or maybe they were all just trying to come up with creative
ways of getting shit into a museum setting. In either case, I think they did
their duty (hahahaha! oh, I kill me) admirably.
Chris Ofili: The Holy Virgin Mary (1996)
Take the British artist Chris Ofili. You may recall his painting depicting
Mary with a breast sculpted from elephant dung, which created a huge
ruckus a few years ago when displayed in a New York museum. But this is
not his only work incorporating huge clumps of shit. In fact, he often uses
elephant dung to prop up his paintings in shows.
Ofili is quoted in Salon.com as saying, "Somehow it makes the painting feel more relaxed, instead of
being pinned upon the wall like it's being crucified ... [The painting can]
stand in its own shit and watch the other paintings being crucified on the
The titles of some of Ofili's other pieces speak for themselves: there's
"Bag of Shit," "Shithead," and he even held a Shit Sale in 1993 in London.
However, this is still all in the realm of the familiar and "earthy."
another artist, Belgian Wim Delvoye, elevated the production of shit to an
inhuman, impersonal level in his conceptual artwork "Cloaca." This installation piece
consisted of a huge machine of glass, tubes, wires,
and pumps that, when fed a meal on one end, would "digest" it using a
blender and jars of enzymes.
Wim Delvoye: Cloaca (2000)
According to the Artnet
review (which was highly entertaining reading in itself), in a couple of
days "the food came out of a filtering unit as something close to genuine,
human shit." A process which, apparently, made grown men blanch and little
girls cry. What more could you ask from a piece of art? The turds were
subsequently signed and sold á la Piero Manzoni. (Delvoye is currently at
work on his ongoing project: tattooing a herd of pigs.)
Art and shit: a confluence which these artists see as oh-so-natural, but a
conjunction that remains disturbing to the average museum-goer. Yet why
should that be so? Why should we not embrace humanity in all its shitty
glory? Perhaps this is a question for art critics of future ages to answer,
when they find petrified lumps of crap in the museum storage room.