Earlier this year, artist Mike Bouchet shocked the art world at Manifesta 11 when he produced a work titled Zurich Load. Bouchet worked with the sewage plant in Zurich, Switzerland and using 80 tons of waste produced by the citizens of Zurich, created bricks that he fashioned into a monumental installation work. In order to create the bricks, the material had to be specially treated to prevent mold and bacterial growth, and a few materials added in order to make it form properly. Bouchet said that he wanted people to be comfortable with their waste, and “I like that everyone in Zurich made it, it’s a collaborative work and you know, everyone’s contribution counts, it’s like a community artwork!”
Before you wrinkle your nose at the idea, consider that this is not the first time someone has used human waste as their medium. In 1961, Italian artist Piero Manzoni produced ninety cans of Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit). Each can was numbered and labeled in German, Italian, French and English as:
contents 30 gr net
Produced and tinned in May 1961
The exact number of cans sold remains unknown, although the Tate Gallery owns one, and several have sold at auction, the last for nearly $200,000.00 (they were originally priced at their weight in gold). To date, no one knows if the cans actually contain the artist’s feces. In Austria in the 1960s, a group of radical performance artists known as the Vienna Actionists performed using bodily fluids such as blood, urine, and feces. In one performance, Günter Brus covered his body in his own feces and sang the national anthem of Austria (a performance which earned him six months in jail). Boris Lurie and Sam Goodman also produced a series of scatologically inspired sculptures for the NO show in 1964. More recently, Chris Ofili caused a stir when he painted a picture of the Virgin Mary that included elephant dung.
While each of these artists had their own articulations as to why they included debased bodily fluids/waste in their work, you can trace the trajectory of the idea to Dada and Georges Bataille. In the use of feces as a material, we can view these works as a redeployment of Duchamp’s ready-made. The ready-made challenged fundamental assumptions about what art is, and these works certainly fit that category. In his texts, Bataille often decried the notion of beauty, arguing the beauty was best encapsulated at the moment of its obsolescence. Maybe you consider roses beautiful, but consider what it is that makes a rose grow (some of the best fertilizers for roses include banana peels, used coffee grinds, powdered fish, and egg shells; waste products). To deny waste is to deny life. Art doesn’t need to be beautiful in order to be transcendental, in fact, art doesn’t need to be transcendental at all.