Body Fluids in Art: Feces

Courtesy of ArtNet news website.

SHIT! Artwork and Feces

Beauty and art have gone hand in hand for centuries. Historically, ‘good’ art was defined by how well an artist could capture and portray physical realism and natural beauty. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that visual artists began to turn away from traditional, lifelike beauty in favor of more abstract depictions. They focused more on emotional and conceptual art, grappling with ideas that evoke disgust or debasement. These works became known as the abject. Abjection is transgressive; it lays bare actions or images that we often strive to keep hidden in society. It focuses on the emotional response of an individual when they are exposed to the hidden horrors of human life. Abject art shocks and causes disgust in its viewers because it subverts social rules. This concept was developed and popularized by Julia Kristeva in the 1980s. Subsequently, an influx of abject art emerged— to include the use of feces in artworks. Human and animal excrement is generally viewed as disgusting and vile. It is normally only seen in private and is quickly flushed away from sight. So, when fecal matter is so brazenly exposed to the public eye it often elicits strong emotions.

Keith Boadwee, Purple Squirt (1995)

In 1995, artist Keith Boadwee created his first enema painting. In these works, Boadwee forgoes a paintbrush in favor of becoming the tube of paint himself. These enema paintings were created by Boadwee by filling part of his rectum with water-based paints, then positioning himself by his canvas, and ejecting the paint from his anus onto the canvas. He often creates tartan patterns or floral shapes using this method. The works are vibrant yet shocking to viewers. The work Purple Squirt features Boadwee sitting on the floor, nude, resting back on his forearms. His legs stick up into the air and a stream of purple paint is gushing from his anus onto a white canvas that has been placed on the floor in front of him. These works challenge society’s inhibitions concerning sex and the human body as well as conventional conceptions of cleanliness and decency.

Chris Ofili, Holy Virgin Mary
Chris Ofili, Holy Virgin Mary. Image via Wikipedia.
Chris Ofili, Open
Chris Ofili, Open. 

Chris Ofili, Open (1992-93)

Chris Ofili started experimenting with elephant dung in his work after traveling to Zimbabwe in 1992. The use of elephant dung was Ofili’s way of bringing part of the African landscape to his work and paying homage to the medicinal and sacred role it plays in some African communities. About the use of dung, Ofili has said, “I wanted to put this ‘repulsive’ thing, a very energetic object (elephant dung) next to some paint and see if the paint could be as energetic, as powerful.” Open is a large abstract work of pink and orange hues with clusters of white dots across the canvas. Stuck to the canvas are seven round balls of elephant dung. Ofili is also well known for his controversial work The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) which depicted Mary surrounded by images of women’s buttocks and used dried elephant dung in place of Mary’s bared breast. Ofili saw the sexually charged nature of several paintings of the Virgin Mary and created his own version through a unique interpretation.

Piero Manzoni, Artist’s Shit (1961)

Artist’s Shit became Piero Manzoni’s most infamous work as he shocked audiences by filling 90 tin cans with 30 grams of his own excrement. Each was given a label with the text, “Freshly preserved, produced, and tinned in May 1961.” The work spoke to mass production as well as the increased use of canning to achieve longer shelf life. Manzoni was known for creating subversive and often irreverent artworks that employed the use of conceptual objects. This work further subverted societal expectations by pricing the cans of human waste to the corresponding price of gold at the time, assigning a high monetary value to an everyday object that is considered disgusting. There has been some uncertainty about whether the cans actually contain Manzoni’s feces. Despite this, in 2000, the Tate Museum bought a can for 30,000 dollars, and in 2007 one of these cans sold for approximately 167,400 dollars in Europe.

Terence Koh, Gold Plated Poop (2007)

PieroManzoni, Artists Shit
Grethell Rasua courtesy of artist websit

Like Manzoni, artist Terence Koh gave his excrement high monetary value by encrusting globs of his own poop with gold leaves. The work was part of Koh’s installation at Art Basel and ended up selling for $500,000. Koh is known for exploring subjects in a provocative manner. This work is thought to be in honor of Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement—an ideology that embraced satire and senselessness with an aim to destroy traditional values in art. The juxtaposition between an extremely valuable substance, gold, and a gross, unsightly substance, poop, fits right into the satirical motivations of Dadaism. 

Grethell Rasua, El Valor de la Mirada (The Value of the Gaze) (2008-09)

Humans have often sought divination systems to gain prophetic insights regarding their destinies. One of these systems is the Chinese horoscope, in which individuals are associated with an animal based on the year they were born. In her work, Rasua allowed viewers to purchase the figurine that coincided with the year they were born—with the twist that the buyer supplied their own poop for the figurine. The works were created by first mixing the buyer’s excrement with oil and then putting it in a resin mold to give the piece its shape. Rasua would then add smaller details and allow the work to dry. Rasua also supplied and added two small pieces of gold for the creature’s eyes. Like artists before her, she chose gold and excrement because these materials are so opposite from each other. Of this work, Rasua said,

“The repulsive is converted into something exclusive, special, and expensive.”

Werner Hartl
Werner Hartl, Watzmann via artist website

Werner Hartl

This artist deals exclusively in cow dung. Werner Hartle dilutes cow poop with water to create a kind of watercolor that he uses for his sepia-tone works. Hartle enjoys the initial shock and awe that occurs in those who view his work while hoping that the works will make people reconsider their views on the environment and how they might utilize the resources around them. The works are filled with detail and often feature the sights and landscapes of the farm life that surrounds Hartl at his home in Bavaria. An illustrator by profession, Hartl hopes that his cow dung paintings will take on a more important role in his future. 

Works that brazenly put the taboo on public display utilize abjection to elicit emotional responses in their viewers. Art’s purpose as an object of beauty is called into question through these artists' use of materials deemed disgusting by society. Often these works can feel tongue-in-cheek, especially in the works of Koh and Manzoni where respected museums and the wealthy spend absurd amounts of money to own someone else’s poop. It creates an interesting juxtaposition between art’s identity as elite and refined, and the reality of artworks that are gross and distasteful. At first glance, artworks made from feces sound revolting but its use in a traditionally highbrow context raises important questions about the world of art—questions about art’s purpose, the role these types of artworks play, and how they both enforce and reject art’s elite status. While our gut reaction to these works is one of disgust, a closer look reveals a deeper and enthralling discussion about the purpose, meaning, and status of art.

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