The Art World: Depicting the nmentionable

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Feb. 21, 2002 at 9:54 AM
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NEW YORK, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- What would the lively New York art scene be without its "sensations"?

Two seasons ago, in a show actually titled "Sensations" at the Brooklyn Museum, the shocker was a "blasphemous" painting of the Virgin Mary clotted with elephant dung. Last year, again at the Brooklyn Museum, a painting of the Last Supper with a female nude in the place of Christ created a similar stir.

This year the sensational exhibits are an elaborate mechanical apparatus that produces excrement at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the upcoming show of recent Nazi imagery at the Jewish Museum, already a cause celebre even though it doesn't open until March 17.

The Jewish Museum exhibition has value as a study of how icons of a hateful past gradually become absorbed into the mainstream of art, a process with profound philosophical implications. But the show titled "Cloaca," to run at the New Museum through April 28, appears to have no redeeming social values that this critic, along with most others, have been able to detect.

It's the sort of thing that might have a place in a museum of natural history in a display of the human digestive process. Back in the 1930s there were those wonderful glass figures of men and women with all their internal mechanisms in full view, made popular by display at the Chicago World's Fair as an educational exhibit for the young and old alike.

The digestive organs in these glass figures were compact, as they are in the actual human body, whereas the digestive contraption of laboratory glassware, electric pumps, computers, monitors and plastic tubing that make up Cloaca fill a large gallery. It looks like it is capable of producing something of considerable size rather than a blob of waste purporting to be almost human.

This questionable work of "art" is the latest venture of Wim Delvoye, a Belgian avant-garde artist who questions the elitism and preciousness he finds in most art objects in Western cultures. Some of his works that have been exhibited widely in Europe are live pigs tattooed with Harley Davidson logos, ironing boards decorated with heraldic designs and potato peelings arranged to write a love letter in Arabic.

Delvoye's Cloaca concept relates to the scatological work of such 20th century artists as Marcel Duchamp, who used plumbing fixtures as sculpture, and Piero Manzoni, who canned his own excrement, as well as to Fernand Leger and Kasimir Malevich who used mechanistic imagery in reference to the human body, the prime concern of Western art.

In fact, Delvoye may well be the Duchamp of Conceptual art, a product more of the brain than of inspiration.

Cloaca is a word of Latin origin referring to the common excretory canal that exists in birds, reptiles, amphibians, many fishes and certain mammals, but not in humans. It is a better-known term for the sewers of antiquity, especially those in Rome. Choosing it as a name for his science project is probably the cleverest thing the artist did in creating this monstrous, and to some viewers disgusting, exhibit.

Cloaca is fed various foods at 11 a.m. and again at 4:30 p.m. The time to be at the New Museum is 2:30 p.m. when the mechanism unloads onto a green conveyor belt that is sealed in a Plexiglass container to prevent leakage of odors into the gallery. For that at least, the viewer should be thankful.

Waiting for the bowel movement moment is like watching a crazily mechanized sculpture by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely self-destruct (with the help of New York City firemen) in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in 1960. This was the sensation of a more innocent time when artists seemed to have a greater sense of humor than they have today.

Not that viewers at the New Museum are above giggling, or at least smirking, as Delvoye's apparatus spews out its ultimate product after a digestive process aided by hydrochloric acids, enzymes, bacteria, pepsin, and pancreatin stored in Cloaca's organs. These are actually glass vats that represent the stomach, pancreas, and small and large intestines.

Cloaca can't complain about the quality of the food fed to it. It is being supplied daily by top-rated restaurants in the SoHo neighborhood of the New Museum, and it never gets cold. It is kept at a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the process of chewing, swallowing, digesting, and evacuating.

There is only one drawback from Cloaca's point of view. It is given no wine with which to wash down its gourmet meals.

If you're wondering what happens to Cloaca's output, it is scooped up by a gloved gallery attendant and flushed down a toilet.

This was handled quite differently when the Cloaca was first exhibited in Antwerp in 2000. There the daily harvest was suspended in resin inside glass jars and displayed with menus documenting what Cloaca had been fed. The jars and the menus were sold to an eager public for $1,000 each.

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