Roland Barthes once famously wrote that, 'when written, the word shit doesn't smell'. In fact, in recent decades we've seen the gradual transfiguration of the term from one possessing the force and repulsion of its object to a somewhat banal, odourless expletive used in daily speech to designate stuff, matter, goods or junk. It's become a word cleansed almost entirely of its vulgarity - its odour. This may be a situation, a characteristic of language - and thus art - that Wim Delvoye's 'new-and-improved' Cloaca (2002) seeks to address, if not rectify.
As you approach the entrance to the exhibition, the first thing you see is the bald, muscled figure of Mr Clean, a household cleaning product logo, whose upper body is attached to a long, winding intestine. However, by the time you spot the curator's introductory wall text, you are overtaken by an overwhelming, unavoidable and uncompromising odour. Quite literally, Cloaca stinks. Before you've even seen it, Delvoye's mechanical glass-and-steel intestine invades your body through its orifices. Cloaca is olfactory first and visual only second. So when you turn the corner and take a long look, you're confronted not only with this polished contraption the size of a small dinosaur, made of peristaltic pumps, glass jars, blinking lights and conveyor belts, and resembling a hybrid between a high-end donut machine and something out of the sanitized suburban laboratories where biogenetic research takes place, but also - and perhaps primarily - the contradiction between what you see and what you smell.
This is worth emphasizing because, to my knowledge, most commentary about Delvoye's spectacular mechanical organ has focused almost entirely on the end product. Shit, as Georges Bataille argued, is the one thing that modern consciousness cannot tolerate. It disturbs its rage for order, for conceptual clarity, for dialectical incorporation of even the most repulsive phenomena into a cohesive system. It is what the body cannot use. Despite Delvoye's direct association of faeces with art - also, as we know, defined as the thoroughly useless - it doesn't take long to see these faeces, coyly displayed at the end on a conveyor belt, as fresh, appetizing treats, to the mind if not the mouth. The most repulsive can easily, as Bataille also pointed out, become the most beautiful.
Visually speaking, Cloaca lends itself to all sorts of interpretations. One can see it as a fantastic metaphor for consumer society, the art market, capitalism, money, even art itself, but to remain only within these readings, I think, would be limiting. Delvoye gives the logic of the ready-made as the critique of the aesthetic art object - how else can one interpret Piero Manzoni's Merda d'artista (Artist's shit, 1962) - a twist. Odour, unlike faeces, is quite singular and cannot be reproduced. One does not - and perhaps cannot - get used to it. No matter how long you watch the Cloaca do its thing, its smell overwhelms your ability to domesticate it conceptually via the metaphor of vision as understanding. As Condillac pointed out in the 18th century, the olfactory sense 'seems to contribute least to human understanding'. Smell is dumb. It cannot be symbolized, only indexed, only experienced ever anew, and ever to the detriment of that other odourless thing called beauty, even the beauty of shit.
Cloaca produces a second inversion of art-historical categories. Delvoye shows us not so much the body-as-machine as its opposite: the machine-as-body rather than as mind. This second figure is interesting, for it asks us to recognize not just that we are bags of guts and phlegm but also that both our ideas and our beauty (nowadays the image of the robot) possess a physicality and a machinery - language, image, stuff - that always produces an excremental remainder we cannot dispose of. Cloaca is indeed a metaphor for our culture, as art, as economics and so on - and arguably one of the most spectacular in decades. It reminds us, however, that we have come to see the machine-as-body as an image of ourselves, an image that we made sacred. Here biogenetics is the most potent and pertinent example, for it says that our body is also our self. Delvoye, however, is sceptical. He traffics in strictly unholy shit.
Saul Anton writes about contemporary art and culture for many publications. He is former senior editor at BOMB Magazine and the author of Warhol’s Dream (2007) and Lee Friedlander: The Little Screens (2015). He teaches at the Pratt Institute, New York.
First published in Issue 67