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The esthetics of excrement

Contemporary Art | When the artist sticks his nose in poop, he shows us what we don’t want to see, what our body and mind evacuate at least once a day : a humid, hot, odoriferous mass, with a chromatic range spanning yellow to dark brown, reddish to greenish, and of variable consistency : soft to hard, flaccid to pasty.

Paul McCarthy, Complex Pile, 2007 © Hauser & Wirth
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Paul McCarthy, Complex Pile, 2007
© Hauser & Wirth

The avant-garde years of the 1960’s and 70’s were marked by autarkic experimentation. In May 1961, after breaking with his father, the owner of a canned meat factory who called his son a “shitty artist”, Piero Manzoni seizes on his father’s expression. Inversing the terms, he gives the expression new meaning, preserving his intimate personal production “au naturel” in 90 cans of 30 grams each. Today, Merda d’artista has entered into museums and art history : attitude has become form.

The French painter Gérard Gasiorowski also radically employs corporeal humus in his Tourtes (1977), arrangements composed of balls of human manure mixed with aromatic plants. Hand-molded, their juices are used to paint these quasi-shamanistic wash drawings on paper. He is careful to eat dark chocolate to obtain good working material. Around the same time, Jacques Lizène’s fecal matter paintings express his obsession “to become my own tube of paint,” also playing on food intake to obtain a range of colors.

In 2000, another Belgian artist, Wim Delvoye, takes a humorous go at the human waste system with « Cloaca » , a work he conceived with scientists as a surrealist laboratory, artificially recreating the phenomenon of digestion to produce metabolic residue. Since then, ten versions of the piece travel museums, with “Cloaca Shops” offering a wide range of spin-off products for sale : toilette paper, books, t-shirts, bags… as well as, of course, the most prized output of the piece, highly popular with collectors.

American artists seem more puritanical, exploring its surface representation, such as Paul McCarthy in his monumental balloon lawn sculpture of dog poop Complex Pile. SHIT, Andres Serrano’s 2008 photographic series, is a large format and highly detailed examination of the realist esthetic of excrement in all its animal and human forms, published in a luxurious edition by Presses du Réel.
In the eye of the artist, the primal language of infancy persists and this intimate matter is seen as the result of a digestive process, fermentation and transmutation : a constantly renewed, living alchemy.

Nina Rodrigues-Ely
Publié le 17/05/2016
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Version française

Paul McCarthy, Complex Pile, 2007 © Hauser & Wirth Piero Manzoni, Merda d’artista 1961 © Centre Pompidou Gérard Gasiorowski Tourtes, premiers essais avec recettes © Galerie Adrien Maegh Wim Delvoye, Cloaca Original,2000 © Wim Delvoye Andres Serrano, SHIT, (Sel portait Shit),2008 © Yvon Lambert Gallery

Paul McCarthy, Complex Pile, 2007
© Hauser & Wirth

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