Piero Manzoni: Scatology and Art
On the 13th of July 1933, Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni was born in Soncino Cremona, Italy. Called, by some, the enfant prodige of Italian art in the late 1950s and early 60s, Manzoni became most famous for a series of artworks that dealt with the presence of the artist’s character and physiology in art. Some of his works, such as the performance piece when he signed his name on living people and issued them with certificates of authenticity, questioned also the nature of the art object. He produced monochrome canvasses, assemblages, performances, and installations, all of which were informed by a sharply comic and theatrical sense. In 1961, Manzoni created his notorious work entitled Artist’s Shit (in Italian Merda d’Artista). The work comprised of 90 self-produced cans, each sealed and labelled in Italian, English, French and German: “Artist’s Shit/ Contents 30gr/ Freshly preserved/ Produced and tinned in May 1961”. Allegedly, the artist filled the cans with his own excrements (allegedly – as none of the cans have been opened yet, and due to the fact that they are made of steel it is impossible to X-ray them; so, their content remains unknown). Each can was priced by weight at the price of 18-carat gold and put on sale. One of them was purchased by the Tate Gallery in London and still remains in its collection.
The transmutation of the artist’s faecal matter into gold was meant to make a reference to the process of alchemy – turning nothing into something, common into precious, or simply unsaleable into saleable. The canned shit translates as the artist’s commentary and critique on the growing post-war mass production and consumerism within Italian society, but also an indication to changing perception of artists and products of their bodies (in a literal and metaphorical sense) as pure commodities. Manzoni’s friend, the artist Enrico Baj, stated that Artist’s Shit was “an act of defiant mockery of the art world, artists, and art criticism.” (Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution)
The reference to Manzoni’s employment of the scatological theme in art can be noticed in the work of some of the later artists such as Andres Serrano or Wim Delvoye. In 2008, Serrano made a series of 68 photographs of animal and human faeces. One of them, called Self Portrait Shit, is a picture of Serrano’s own faeces. In comparison to Serrano’s work, Manzoni’s canned shit seems to remain within the notion of taboo – hidden in a steel can, kept away from sight, teasing one’s own imagination, posing rather than answering questions, one of which is: ‘is the shit really inside?’. Serrano’s photograph, on the other hand, smears the viewer with its raw content all over their consciousness as well as the unconscious. It is so true, yet revolting; so natural, yet making one feel awkward and ashamed of their own humanness. In fact, only by looking at the photograph, one can almost smell the familiar odour. It is tempting to say that Serrano’s work, similarly to Manzoni’s, stands as a commentary on consumerism either in art or society, on its enormity and directness we are faced with at present. Yet, the artist claims that the work was driven by purely aesthetic motives. He said: “Just before I started to make these pictures, I had a moment of panic: What if I can’t find beauty, diversity? What if they don’t look good?” Also, the fact that among his images are photographs of animal faeces, disqualifies his work as an anti-consumerist statement.
Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca (2000), on the other hand, employs a serious critique and reflection upon the growing consumerism in art. “Wim Delvoye, for one, challenges the constructed nature of human values relating to art through his artistic interventions within the market of art. Most infamously in Cloaca (2000), Delvoye raises questions concerning the values we ascribe to art, the human body, technology, science and faeces. Through a series of vats, tubes and chemicals, Delvoye had scientists craft machinery replicating the various stages involved in human digestion. With a blender serving as a mouth, Cloaca was fed twice daily, typically from a fine restaurant representing the local cuisine of whatever city the work was being exhibited. The result of the blending and ‘digesting’ of the foods leads to the production of turds, which the artist then sells to pay for the costs of the technology.” (K. Malcolm Richards, Derrida Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts)
“Sold at the price of gold, Manzoni’s work, like Delvoye’s, exposes the ability of the art market to generate value independent of any rationale. The human fascination with the scatological runs deep, from Classical antiquity to the Middle Ages and beyond, to Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder No. 2 (1914) and all of Cloaca’s other artistic forebears. Scatological humour, for some, also entails a human fear of waste. The suppression of waste in Western culture ultimately leads to the return of the repressed in the form of environmental crisis in the twenty-first century. Delvoye’s work can be read not only as concerning human reactions to excrement, but also human relations to the body in an age of technology. If we can understand waste as a natural by-product of a series of chemical processes, why do our reactions to shit go beyond the rational?” (Richards)