New Museum of Contemporary Art | January 25- April 28, 2002
If you made it to the Rose Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History before March 1, you were likely reminded that we barely register on the cosmic radar screen. In the inaugural Passport to the Universe Space Show, which ended in February, bulbous galactic shapes of light appear massive in their breadth; even Tom Hanks’s comforting narration cannot keep us from being overwhelmed by the sublimity of the vastness over our heads. It is a beauty that obliterates our existence. Afterwards, it’s reassuring to imagine an entire cosmos of atoms rushing out in a sneeze, our bodies containing an infinitude equal in scope to that which we’ve just witnessed. Even then, we’re left as little more than placeholders on a boundless continuum.
At the New Museum downtown, we come face to face with a machine that marginalizes, but ultimately affirms, the anima which we so jealously believe makes us unique in the universe. The product of a lengthy collaboration between Belgian artist Wim Delvoye and scientists at the University of Antwerp, “Cloaca” mimes the function of the human digestive system using a complex series of computer-monitored glass chambers, tubes, pumps, enzymes, bacteria, and acids that extend over 30 feet. In a spectacle akin to an altar offering, someone climbs a staircase at the beginning of the contraption twice a day with a three-course meal sent over from one of the local restaurants who have agreed to sponsor the “feeding” of the machine. The food is scraped into a disposal, which pulverizes it and shoots it along its 22-hour digestive journey. Appropriately, the machine shits once a day, regaling viewers with a foul and intimately recognizable odor in spite of the Museum’s fact sheet insisting that “all fecal matter is contained within a closed compartment” and its air purified.
That we find the smell so unpleasant points to one of the work’s goals: to consider how notions of authenticity are challenged by technology. More specifically, it forces this dialogue into our reality, into the authenticity of humanness and human experience in the age of biotechnology. In spite of its familiarity, we know that this turd is an imposter, a Frankensteinian dupe. But if we stepped in it, would we care who, or in this case what, excreted it? Removed from the context of its making, this shit is little more than the shit we so hurriedly dispose of with a quick flush.
In a previous version of the work, the shit was collected and stored in jars of resin to be sold, commanding prices worthy of saintly relics. Here it is disposed of by a trained museum attendant. Coming directly out of Italian Conceptualist Piero Manzoni’s canning of his own excrement (“Merda d’Artista”), “Cloaca” plays on the cultural value that we ascribe to Art against its functional worthlessness. This is a small joke made at considerable expense, the humor of which is exacerbated by its price tag: estimates for the production of the piece run as high as 200,000 euro. Since shit is Cloaca’s only real product—sold or disposed of—in “Cloaca,” Delvoye touches on our celebrity culture’s transformation of the mundane through veneration. What could be more worthless than shit? And yet, how much would we pay for Jennifer Aniston’s Shit (imagine the eBay frenzy)?
A number of topics run through Delvoye’s work, often appearing distinct from one another. He first gained notice in the early ’90s with tile mosaics using pictures of his own shit, which, while pretty, never progress beyond a kind of adolescent silliness. A more recent series of asshole lipstick prints on the stationery of upscale hotels seems similarly sophomoric. “Cloaca” is the latest in this scatological line of investigation. Another vein running through Delvoye’s career ties the aesthetic opposition between image and object inherent in decoration into greater debates regarding cultural value. Around the same time that Delvoye was making the poo mosaics, he exhibited a small concrete mixer carved ornately out of teak, contesting the object with its decoration. This strategy was carried out more fully at the 1999 Venice Biennale where the artist commissioned Indonesian craftsmen to carve a full-size cement truck in floridly decorated teak. These works take as subject matter Dutch colonization (concrete for construction) and express it using the exploited projects and workforce of a colonized state. The woodcarvers, employed for their cheap labor, end up using their trade skills to undermine a symbol of their own subjugation.
A project from the mid-’90s involved tattooing pigs and displaying their hides after they had gone to market. The images in this case fleetingly bolstered the physical worth of the animals while concurrently exposing the contradictions in our value system. For example, the tattooing required a special veterinary anesthesiologist because while we have procedures developed for the sedation of dogs, cats, and giraffes, pigs are not worth enough to fix if something goes wrong. But imbued with the aura of their artist decorator, the skins in which the pigs lived conferred upon them an elusive fetishized value. This value did not extend to the flesh, as the animals were skinned and their meat sold at market price. The pigs were transitory vessels for the ill-defined aura Western culture prescribes to its art and since Vasari, to its makers.
In a sick and brilliant proposal for this past summer’s exhibition "Sonsbeek 9 - LocusFocus" in the Netherlands, Delvoye proposed having a plastic surgeon mold the face of a bulldog into his own. Chimera-like, the resulting animal would be an almost complete synthesis between decorating image and host object. Other artists have explored this topic, most notably Orlan, who videotaped herself getting cosmetic surgery. Delvoye’s dog, however, takes the narcissism at the base of this desire and expands it to expose the system of valuation that governs our relationship with domestic animals—as distinct from our economic relationship with pigs, for example.
The most striking thing about the dog proposal (which was not carried out) is its permanence. While one could have erased the tattoos from the pigs with laser surgery, a reconsideration of the dog-face would require a reconstructive procedure as complicated as the one that created it to begin with. And yet, true permanence could result only from not-yet-feasible genetic manipulation, giving rise to a breed of Delvoye-faced dogs that would reproduce indefinitely into the future.
For a series of manipulated photographs from 2000, the artist imagines enduring moments of casual and intimate communication. Employing text from personal ads, bathroom scrawl (“Rude but cute 18 year old babe 018 83 87 480”), and private notes (“Honey, lasagna in the fridge love you, S.”), Delvoye digitally carves these cast-off phrases into sheer rock cliffs that lord over rolling farmlands or beach-side towns. Their transient existence is fixed, their intimacy made monolithic.
It is this dialectic between ephemeral and enduring value that seems fundamental to much of Delvoye’s production. In 1999, pre-“Cloaca,” the artist recreated intricate marble floor patterns in lunch meats. He presented them as photographs, preserving the patterns before they were dissolved by rot. The resulting images were threatened by the substance in which they were created. “Cloaca” can be viewed as a variation on this desire to counter the natural progression of decay. Though much less efficient than the natural system upon which it is based (it takes 33 feet to accomplish what we get done in about two and a half), “Cloaca” is not bound by time; if properly fed and maintained, it could still be cranking out shit long after the artist has died.
“Cloaca” brings together the scatological/biological and classically aesthetic concerns of Delvoye’s production. Here, the image-object opposition is separated, departing from Delvoye’s prior conflation of the two parts in a single work of art. Still, the image maintains its challenge to the object. The machine, in its complete mimesis, calls into question the body’s exclusive claim to the functions understood to make it unique. By now, we’re relatively familiar with this contest, though it is usually presented to us in the form of health-care advancements: artificial joints, heart pumps, engineered skin fabrics. But the most complicated bioethical issues we currently face involve our understanding of life: where it begins, what qualifies as being “alive.” As bioengineering gains upon us, the varieties of human spirituality and psychology assume a treasured prominence—final bastions against a technological sublimation. In the room with Delvoye’s image-machine, we momentarily see ourselves stripped bare, the physical facts of our bodies exploited. It is a twisted symbiosis in which the work of art reduces us to mere food processors while simultaneously, by comparison, devaluing this reductionist understanding of human existence. Here, as in the case of the artist’s teak cement truck, the work of art becomes a location in which these power structures are flipped onto their heads, where the subjugated gain the upper hand, where objectification becomes affirmation.