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Wim Delvoye
photo Dirk Pauwels

Photo Christoph Neerman

Photo Christoph Neerman

Eddy and Marcel
1998 and 1997
photo Christoph Neerman

A Human Masterpiece
by Els Fiers

Cloaca, the latest work by the Belgian conceptualist Wim Delvoye (b. 1965), has just closed out its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MuHKA) in Antwerp. It was a room-sized installation of six glass containers connected to each other with wires, tubes and pumps. Every day, the machine received a certain amount of food.

Meat, fish, vegetables and pastries passed through a giant blender, were mixed with water, and poured into jars filled with acids and enzyme liquids. There they got the same treatment as the human stomach would supply. Electronic and mechanical units controlled the process, and after almost two days the food came out of a filtering unit as something close to genuine, human shit.

During the exhibition, the smelly assembly line caused quite some consternation. It seemed to bring an infernal message into the world. There is enough dung as it is. Why make more?

Worse, the installation was placed in a cold, clean space at the museum, where it was nourished by a first class chef who prepared two meals a day in an attached kitchen. The atmosphere suggested a hospital equipped for a strange experiment -- the birth and care of a machine that eats and defecates -- a mechanical baby. "Hi," it seemed to say, "I'm almost like you."

Delvoye's work doesn't resemble the human body, though perhaps it could be called a figurative work. But visitors walked out with a strange look on their faces, as if they'd just paid a visit to the devil. Cheeks turn a little pale as art, the beautiful image of humanity, turned into the making of stool.

Delvoye has given a name to his harsh creature: Cloaca, referring to the ancient sewer in Rome. But while the cloaca maxima proved to be useful, this Cloaca goes beyond every purpose, except of course revealing of the meaning of art. So, too, the spending and earning of money is part of its purpose. The machine daily delivered turds that were signed and sold for $1,000 each.

Absurd? "Imagine a very rich man who plays golf," Delvoye said. "He spends a massive amount of time and money for just one purpose: to put a little ball into a hole. Isn't that absurd?"

At a school visit, a little girl burst into tears in front of the machine. She might have been right. After all, she wasn't expecting to see such a powerful, shitty portrait of man.

Delvoye is fast developing a reputation on the international art circuit as something of a hard case. His work regularly appears on the auction block -- last November, an elaborately carved wood cabinet filled with 32 circular saw blades painted with scenes in Delft China blue sold for $21,150 at Christie's New York. Visitors to the 2000 Venice Biennale probably noticed his life-sized carved walnut replica of a cement truck.

And his continuing project, a herd of pigs covered with tattoos done by the best needle-men Antwerp's red-light district has to offer, is currently appearing at venues around the globe. Marcel, a pig adorned with a Harley-Davidson tattoo, has visited several European cities, while Bonnie and Clyde spent last Thanksgiving at the San Francisco Art Institute and Boris and Tatiana went to the Moscow Art Fair. The artist also makes stuffed tattooed pigs (one sold at auction in 1998 for $12,500) and tattooed pig skins ($4,830 in 1999). Delvoye lives and works in Ghent.

ELS FIERS is a journalist and art critic who writes for the Belgian weekly magazines Knack and Focus.