Wim Delvoye

New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, USA

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.

Issue 67

First published in Issue 67

May 2002

Most Read

Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018