Wim Delvoye: Cloaca
January 25 – April 28 2002
This exhibition of Wim Delvoye’s large-scale installation Cloaca represents the first-ever solo presentation by a U.S. museum of the acclaimed young Belgian artist’s work. Built from chemical beakers, electric pumps, and plastic tubing arrayed on a series of seven stainless steel tables, Cloaca is the result of a three-year collaboration between the artist and scientists at the University of Antwerp, whose shared mission was to duplicate the functions of the human digestive system as closely as possible. Cloaca is fed twice a day from a large funnel reached by climbing a stepladder.
At the work’s inauguration, Delvoye himself ascended the ladder carrying a tray laden with a tasty and substantial Belgian meal of mushroom soup, filet of fish, and a rich pudding, which he dropped in the funnel a dollop at a time. The food is chewed by a garbage disposal device before traveling on a 27-hour-long digestive trajectory, through six glass vats connected by tubes and pipes, pumps and various electronic components that are Cloaca‘s stomach, pancreas, and small and large intestines. The “digesting” food is constantly kept at a precise 37.2 degrees centigrade and each of Cloaca’s “organs” is full of computer-monitored enzymes, bacteria, acids and bases such as pepsin, pancreatin, and hydrochloric acid. The product finally goes through a separator and the remaining solids are extruded onto a conveyer belt. Years before Cloaca was conceived of, Delvoye’s first New York gallery exhibitions in the early 1990s offered a new way of considering cultural identity. While clearly influenced by Pop Art, his art picked up on the ironic ambivalence of the neoconceptual generation (Jeff Koons, et al.) while anticipating some of the identity questions that would dominate art in the following decade. At their most obvious, Delvoye’s works from this early period established him as an artist whose sharp critical faculties are strategically balanced out by sardonic humor. However, for more than ten years, Delvoye’s work has also represented one of the most important directional shifts in European art, moving from the transcendentalism reintroduced by Joseph Beuys after World War II toward a more literal examination of the human body as both subject and material.
In keeping with Delvoye’s interest in rhetoric, his sculptures and installations are typically based on a juxtaposition of opposites: soccer goals made from stained glass, concrete mixers made from intricately carved mahogany, and gas canisters covered in Delft-like decorations. This subverts their uses and social roles to explore relationships between form and surface, content and skin. Delvoye’s interest in opposition reaches a kind of pinnacle in Cloaca, an expensive and delicate machine whose sole objective is to create a product that possesses an overwhelmingly negative cultural value.
Another recurring element in Delvoye’s art has been the contradiction between civilization’s veneer of purely cerebral reflection and the tendency of the body to assert itself as a vehicle for the return of art to its earthy origins. This struggle can be readily seen in an ongoing series (ca. 1997-99) of terrazzo tiles with images of sandwich meats or arrangements of (apparently) human feces–a forerunner of the current work. While Cloaca has important historical precedents, most notably Piero Manzoni’s Merda d'Artista (1961), its critical significance lies in the way it brings together certain widely divergent tendencies in recent art. At one extreme is a growing interest in how art and technology intersect. At the other extreme is an ongoing investigation into abjection as fundamental to the human condition. A number of artists over the past decade, among them Mike Kelly, Kiki Smith, and Janine Antoni, have explored the ways in which traditional hierarchies of meaning and value tended to overlook, even denigrate, corporeal experience. In their work, these artists have attempted to replace an iconography of narcissism and power with one in which discomfort and pain are tangibly present. Cloaca acknowledges these extremes by structuring an environment in which direct parallels are drawn between the contemplation of art and the contemplation of bodily wastes. In addition, by replicating one of our most crucial biological functions, Delvoye forces viewers both to consider our social discomfort with such functions and to question the elaborate cultural mechanisms that we have constructed to keep them from view. Despite its seeming transparency, Cloaca also deliberately challenges our notions of what constitutes a meaningful or educational display. Just as society is unable to recognize that anxieties and discomfort about feces are connected to broader cultural taboos concerning the body and its imperatives, so we cannot yet imagine an educational mindset that would treat feces objectively, as if one were studying insects or cloud patterns. In fact, our cultural anxieties about these processes are so deep-seated and pervasive that for most people they do not even qualify as anxieties in the first place. Yet, they are closely related to other biological uncertainties, including (but not limited to) guilt concerning sex, embarrassment over nudity, shame about aging, fear of disease, and death. Because none of these can be avoided, they remind us of the vast aspects of our most intimate lives–and by extension, the world–over which we have no control whatsoever. While Cloaca has important art-historical precedents and is weighted with enough social and cultural baggage to be egregiously misinterpreted, its most significant contribution appears to be in an area of philosophy one might refer to as bioethics. In its most essential reading, Cloaca directly confronts the contemporary state of confusion regarding when or where human life begins and ends. Through a monumental simulacrum tracing the path made by what we eat from the mouth to the anus, Cloaca forces us to see this process as something more than simply mechanical and catch ourselves in the act of self-identification. It has been a given that we would continue to receive challenges to accepted cultural beliefs about what it means to be alive, but we are surprised that this particular challenge has originated outside the field of artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, it is strangely consoling to recognize that some of the most basic facts of our physical lives remain as foreign and mysterious as the deepest secrets about the origins of the universe. - Dan Cameron, Senior Curator