PRINT September 2001


PURE NIGHTMARE OR FONDEST DESIRE, we all dreamed of it; Wim Delvoye has made it. After eight years of collaboration with a team of experts in fields as diverse as gastroenterology, computer technology, and plumbing, the Belgian artist debuted his defecation machine at the Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst, Antwerp, last fall, just in time for it to leave its mark on the twentieth century.

Any observer of modern art could smell it coming: The history of the relationship between art and excrement has yet to be written (no doubt dissertations are in the pipeline), but the link is a solid one. We know, for example, thanks to Maurice Denis's Journal, that around 1870, when Manet asked Cézanne what he planned for the Salon, the latter responded: “a pot of shit.” Add to that artists' sustained fascination with machines (painting machines, for one, along the lines of the contraption described by Alfred Jarry in Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien [1898], itself a fairly organic invention); the meditation on waste, human or otherwise, by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, and Piero Manzoni; and the recent wave of abject art (in which we might classify Delvoye's own turd-motif mosaics made in the early '90s—and Cloaca, 2000, takes its rightful place as art history's greatest inevitability.

So how does it work? Pretty much the way you and I do. While Cloaca resembles an assembly line more than a person on the outside, the digestive process, controlled by a computer that the artist manipulates remotely via the Internet, is faithfully reproduced. At one end stands a stepladder allowing access to the basin into which meals (catered by the museum, with soft drinks and alcohol to wash them down) are fed; at the other, a circular tray receives the output of this complex procedure, one each of us regularly carries out without much thought (provided all goes smoothly). Between the two, a battery of transparent mechanisms and receptacles maintained at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit—body temperature—absorbs, at strategic intervals, the enzymes and juices necessary for digestion. Once activated, the machine eats twice a day (breakfast and a late lunch), even when the exhibition space is closed, which suggests a certain level of dedication on the part of the staff—not to mention the tolerance shown by employees and viewers alike for the highly realistic odor that emanates from Cloaca's nether regions. Delvoye collects the pungent matter daily and packages it, suspended in resin, in small jars, which he then sells, apparently with much success.

After rest stops in Antwerp, Vienna, and Zurich, Cloaca, still the property of its inventor (who recently refused to sell it to a diaper company that hoped to use it for tests), will journey to the New Museum in New York this January. To judge by the logo Delvoye designed for his machine—a fusion of the Ford and Coca-Cola emblems—he has something to say to America, a message to be ingested carefully if lightheartedly. Watch where you step.

Jean-Pierre Criqui

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.