Thursday, May 01, 2008

Replay I

Piero Manzoni (1933-1963): Taking the Odour Out of Ordure

Merda d'artista (Artist's Shit), 1961

Piero Manzoni was an Italian artist who died at the age of 29 in 1963. But before he went he got some excrement - his own - and put it in a tin can. 'Excellent!' he said, in Italian, 'I think I'll call it Merda d'artista!'

Manzoni's canned shit is well known now, or the idea of it is. It's an idea as powerful in the popular imagination as the idea of blank canvases. In fact the actual cans are not all that well known. There are many of them. Each one contains an amount of the artist's own shit. On the label it says 30 grams but of course no one can really tell. The labels are quite detailed and well designed, with the name of the work in three languages, plus the date, the artist's signature and the name of the collector who owns the individual can - all this is part of the look. PIERO MANZONI is printed on the label in light grey letters on a grey ground, with the name repeating so it makes a mantra of the artist's name, as well as a grey and yellow pattern.

When they were first sold they cost their weight in gold. Now they're worth much more. If one came on the market today it would cost about 30,000 pounds. So while a pile of them was shown in a vitrine in London's Serpentine Gallery recently, it was a pile of shit but it was nearly a million pound's worth. . .

Money, shit, art: the holy trinity. Manzoni took jokes to a higher plane than Duchamp, in that he elevated them to the spiritual plane which was somewhere Duchamp never really wanted to go. Manzoni transubstantiated the things of the earth into mystery things. His signature was his magic medium. With it he could turn balloons filled with his breath into saintly relics or make women into artworks. He signed them and issued them with a certificate so that they knew what class of living art work they were - temporary, permanent, intermittent and so on. Each state was symbolised by stamp of a different colour on the certificate - for example, a state of permanent art was symbolised by a red stamp. The women had no special duties as works of art but they did become prisoners of Manzoni, prisoners of his idea.

He wanted to make the world into a prisoner too, with a metal cube inscribed with the words 'Base of the world', which he exhibited upside down on the floor, making the earth into a sculpture, one that floated in infinite space.

From This Is Modern Art by Matthew Collings