Who Needs Artists When a Machine Can Make Merde?

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve heard disgruntled people in the art world say of a work of art that greatly distressed or disgusted them: “It’s a piece of shit.” I may have indulged in such an indelicate metaphor myself from time to time, but never before in print. There is, after all, no shortage of disgusting things to be encountered on the art scene nowadays, and over time the vocabulary of disgust tends to reduce itself to a few elementary-or should I say “alimentary”?-epithets. But what this one may lack in the way of originality, it more than makes up for in being so clear and unequivocal.

Not until now, alas, have I encountered an alleged art project that is specifically designed to produce a piece of shit. I mean literally-we’re not talking metaphor here. And we’re not alluding to examples of divine elephant dung, either; we’re talking about a facsimile of human excrement. For it is the sole purpose of the room-size contraption called Cloaca , which is currently provoking smirks and giggles at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Soho, to periodically expel from its elaborate network of vessels and tubes, gauges and pumps, nothing more nor less than a piece of shit.

I cannot attest from personal experience, however, that the Cloaca machine actually succeeds in this bizarre endeavor. On the day that I visited the Cloaca show, what the New Museum promised would be a “bowel movement” failed to occur. What the museum produced in lieu of the promised piece of shit was a photograph of an earlier, more successful evacuation when Cloaca was exhibited at the Migros Museum in Zurich. This is the picture included here. Who knows? It may be that the Swiss foodstuffs that were “fed” to the machine in Zurich proved to be more digestible, so to speak, than the American food it was made to process in New York. I cannot honestly say I was disappointed that Cloaca failed to perform. For it is only as an example of the kind of psychopathology that is now deemed permissible in the art world that Cloaca is even minimally interesting.

The mastermind who dreamed up this event-I hesitate to call him an artist, even by the debased standards to which the term has now fallen-is Wim Delvoye, a Belgian who apparently specializes in allegedly “transgressive” projects of this kind. Until now, his handiwork has been blessedly unknown to me, but we are told by the New Museum that one of his earlier efforts involved the tattooing of live pigs with Harley Davidson logos. We are also invited to place Cloaca in a modern tradition dating back to Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mechanique and Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass in the early decades of the 20th century.

Well, there can be little doubt that Duchamp remains the principal begetter of this shit, but it is a slander of a great artist to associate Cloaca with Léger. A comparison with the contemporary British provocateur Damien Hirst is closer to the truth. Yet though I have often heard Mr. Hirst’s work denounced as shit, so far as I know he hasn’t actually attempted to use or produce the thing itself in an alleged work of art. In this novel area of contemporary cultural life, it’s becoming necessary to know, when we hear something spoken of as “a piece of shit,” whether the expression is being used metaphorically or literally. Simple concerns about hygiene now require such distinctions.

Now, it may be that Mr. Delvoye really is the first person in the art world to create a machine that produces shit, but he cannot be said to be the first aspiring artist to use human feces as-what shall I call it?-an artistic medium. A few years ago, I discovered that something like a school of excremental art existed on the outer fringes of the London art scene. Back in the 1990’s, when there was a fair amount of uproar over the stupid stuff that was being awarded the Turner Prizes, I was invited by the director of the Tate Gallery to participate in a public forum devoted to issues in contemporary art. On that occasion, there was inevitably a lot of talk about the urgent need for “transgressive” art of all varieties. I was, of course, expected to dissent from this view, and I did. In answer to a question from the audience, which was packed with aspiring artists, I said that the only truly transgressive medium for art that I could think of was, indeed, human excrement, but that I wasn’t aware that anyone had attempted to use it. Yet before I could finish speaking, a great many hands were raised in protest, and one aspiring artist after another mentioned the names of people who were at that very moment hard at work on the task of transforming shit into a cutting-edge work of art. Thus, not for the first time in my adventures in the art world, it was made clear to me that things are always worse than you think they are.

When I later had time to reflect on this encounter, it occurred to me that after the Shit Paintings (as they were called) by the English duo Gilbert and George were greeted with such extravagant acclaim by the London critics, it was inevitable that a younger generation would attempt to carry the shit theme to another level of scandal. For in Gilbert and George’s pictures, it will be recalled, human turds were often depicted on a grand scale-one ambitious critic even compared the result to the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral-but the pictures themselves were safely devoid of the actual excrement. As I say, it is only as examples of art-world psychopathology that any of this is interesting, and with the arrival of Cloaca on our shores we have at last been given-or rather promised-the real thing: a piece of shit on exhibition in an art museum. How proud the trustees of the New Museum of Contemporary Art must be of this breakthrough achievement!

Cloaca remains on view, with or without the shit, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway at Houston Street, through April 28. For the machine’s bowel-movement schedule, you can call the museum at 219-1222. Be prepared to be disappointed; after all, art of this persuasion often is disappointing, isn’t it?