Making shit art

Wim Delvoye, drawing for Cloaca, 2000

Plenty of people think contemporary art is shit. And of course, some of it probably is. And sometimes when I’m talking to students about their work I’ll use the word crap, but I always mean it to be a positive (for example “this has a pleasingly crap aestheic”). But one, unusually bonkers (and I mean that in a good way too) work, Cloaca by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, is shit in a much more literal sense. Don’t read on if you’re squeamish (or about to have lunch)…

So far, so uncontroversial. In this detail picture, Cloaca just looks like a bit of a science experiment, and essentially that’s what it is. But it’s a productive one. And its product is – literally – shit. Faeces. Believably human faeces.

Wim Delvoye, Cloaca, 2000

Cloaca (the name comes from the Latin word for sewer) is a multi-stage machine which, much like the human digestive system, turns food to turds.

In an episode of Art Safari, Ben Lewis had the product tested. The results suggested that what Cloaca produces is convincingly human and convincingly shit.

Clip from Art Safari in which Ben Lewis tests his own shit against Cloaca‘s. Warning: contains shitting art critic.

Of course, art has been here before. Piero Manzoni’s 1961 work Artist’s Shit effectively asserts that as an artist everything Manzoni creates is art, including his shit which he canned (there are uncertainties about the Ronseal nature of this work, with some claiming the tins contain plaster) and sold at the cost of the equivalent weight of gold.

Piero Manzoni, Artist’s Shit, 1961 (produced as an edition of 90 cans)

If Duchamp’s Fountain can be seen as effectively saying seen as the artist saying “I am an artist, therefore what I exhibit is art” and Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit as “I am an artist, therefore what I produce is art”, where does that leave Delvoye? “I am an artist, therefore what I make is shit”, perhaps? Whatever the meaning, I enjoy the insanity of the undertaking and like the crazy science experiment look of the piece but it’s a work I’m happy to look at in odourless reproduction.

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