Urine, Feces, and Art:
A Urinary/Intestinal/Historical Tract

By Charles H. Meyer

Ridiculous as it sounds, the excretory has been part of modern art since Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a signed urinal, was exhibited behind a curtain in 1917. Although initially rejected as nothing but a practical joke, Fountain is now considered as important to the advent of conceptual art in the 1960s as Manet’s Olympia (1863) was to the birth of French Impressionism. But more than simply challenge artistic conventions, Fountain did so while evoking one of the most abject yet ordinary activities: urination. It also poked fun at statues like the bronze Peeing Boy, erected in Brussels in 1619. Looking nothing like Baroque statuary, however, Fountain instead celebrates something ostensibly antithetical to art—the efficient utility of modern plumbing. And because it does so in a tongue-in-cheek manner, taking Fountain too seriously misses its humor, while taking it merely as a joke overlooks its serious attack on aesthetics, creativity, and value. Taking it both ways, some artists have felt inspired by Fountain to think of urine and feces not just as subject matter but as readymade artistic media.

Enter the urinators, defecators, and art smashers. The original having been lost, Fountain reemerged in 1964 as a signed edition of eight. Fast forward to 1993: French artist Pierre Pinoncelli urinates into one of these replicas before cracking it with a hammer. In 2000, Chinese artists Juan Chi and Jian Jun Xi attempt to urinate on another replica. Most recently, in 2006, Pinoncelli hammers yet another. What is more ironic? That these artists are trying to destroy Fountain to keep alive its iconoclastic spirit, or that museum officials are trying to preserve it as a precious object and thus conceptually destroy it as a work that declares art dead? These opposing efforts to keep Fountain “alive” constitute just the kind of absurd dialectical tug of war Duchamp would have liked. Although Fountain may have ceased to inspire controversy long ago, it still inspires controversial performances that succeed while appearing to fail, their authority-upsetting antics whimsically drawing provocation from the rich font of maverick creativity that Fountain has continually proved itself to be.

Throughout Fountain’s history, many other artists have cultivated the anti-aesthetic of the excretory that Duchamp ushered into art. While not a key strain of modernism, excrementalism occasionally moves from the avant-garde’s outer orbits to mainstream culture’s center stage, often as part of some politician’s promotion of “family values” over immorality. Rudolf Giuliani, for instance, publicly condemned British artist Chris Ofili’s paintings, which incorporate magazine cutouts of twat shots and are propped against the wall on glitter-dusted chunks of varnished elephant dung. But the most noticeable visual feature of the painting that most bothered Giuliani, The Holy Virgin Mary, is not its pornographic and scatological elements, but its depiction of its subject as a large African woman, which he hopefully did not consider offensive. Furthermore, in spite of the anger expressed by Giuliani and others when The Holy Virgin Mary appeared in the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Sensation exhibit in 1999, it is a surprisingly beautiful painting that exemplifies Ofili’s skill at sublimating base materials into dazzling canvases radiating a spiritual, rhythmic energy. The odor of elephant dung it exudes is more earthy than abject, reminding us that animal feces is not simply repulsive. As virgin soil that feeds bacteria, insects, and plants, it is a source of life, and, as such, is not unrelated to notions of holiness, motherhood, and virginity.

Mixing religion with the excretory a decade earlier, American photographer Andres Serrano outraged Senators Joe D’Amato and Jesse Helms when he received $15,000 from the NEA for Piss Christ, a photograph depicting a plastic crucifix floating in the artist’s own urine. Yet Serrano’s photograph, like Ofili’s painting, is exquisite—a majestic, neo-Baroque vision in which urine seems to transubstantiate into liquid gold.

Speaking of which, in 1961, the Italian artist Piero Manzoni made Artist’s Shit, 90 small tins of his own feces priced at the going rate for gold, thus, like Serrano, suggesting that anything an artist creates attains instant value, as if the Freudian anal-retentive personality at its most literal, coupled with artistic genius, might be geared towards accreting a priceless inventory of artworks.

Ever since the factory approach of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst, however, why make your own shit when you can have someone else, or better yet, a machine, make it? Belgian artist Wim Delvoye followed this train of logic by making Cloaca, 2000-7, a device that eats gourmet meals, digests them in a series of enzyme-filled containers, and then pumps out a substance remarkably similar to human feces, each piece of which is signed and sold for $1000.

But manufacturing feces is only one way to make fine art. Between 1977 and 1978, Andy Warhol directed two male assistants to urinate onto 12 canvases covered in copper paint. The resulting abstractions, The Oxidation Series, look gilded rather than defiled, their copper fields surrounding deep green pools resulting from the metal’s oxidation as the men emulated, but with different tools, Jackson Pollock’s vigorous drip-painting technique.

Using assistants is conventional, however odd Warhol’s participation in that tradition. But such roles are usually obscured. Not so, however, in Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s work, which blatantly exposes the subcontracting of art by pushing it beyond its ordinary limits. His 2005-6 work, 21 Anthropometric Modules Made from Human Feces by the People of Sulabh International, India may have the rusty look of Richard Serra’s undulating walls of steel and the serial redundancy of Donald Judd’s Marfa, Texas boxes, but while these latter works imply anonymous foundries, Sierra’s coffin-like Modules announce with their title that they were outsourced to people in India. Possessing neither the weightiness of Serra nor the lightness of Judd, they have the earthy consistency, human scale, and critical bite of German artist Joseph Beuys’s works, albeit without the latter artist’s romantic mysticism. They are modest, barely significant, and firmly of this world—in short, what we are destined to become: stackable waste gathered up by Wall-E the robot.

Does excrementalism have a future? Historically, the avant-garde has, per its name, continually softened our stool and pee-pee taboos in advance of popular culture. Consider, for instance, how seeing a toilet in movies like I Want to Live! (1958) and Psycho (1960) was almost as shocking as seeing a female protagonist either executed for murder or murdered herself, while the art world had experienced its first toilet shock by 1917. While I could certainly discuss edgier toilet scenes since those first celluloid glimpses of porcelain, few could hold a scented candle to any of the aforementioned art. I could write a whole book called South Park and Poop, but it just as easily could write itself. Better yet, I could follow the trajectory of excremental representation, rather than presentation, beginning with Salvador Dali’s The Lugubrious Game (1929). But nothing seems quite as special as the genuine number, whether one or two. In a simulated age, actual urine and feces prove themselves palpably, cruelly, refreshingly real. As such, they seem anathema to art, except that we relieved ourselves of the art-as-artifice paradigm a long time ago.

Published in: The Satellite.  Vol. 7, No. 9: September 3, 2008.  pp. 22-23.


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