Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Man Who Sold His Own Shit

Piero Manzoni was an Italian, self-taught painter best known for his ironic approach to avant-garde art. Much like the work of  Yves Klein, Manzoni's work both anticipated and directly influenced the Italian Arte Povera movement. In his works, Manzoni eschewed normal media in order to "tap mythological sources and to realize authentic and universal values." Manzoni questioned traditional aims and methods of the artist and later called into question the  nature of the art object in works that prefigured Conceptual Art. In addition to countless fabricated objects, Manzoni used his own bodily functions and features in his experimental body of work; exploring the relationship between art production and human production. These included marking eggs with his thumbprints before eating them (Consumption of Art by the Art-Devouring Public)selling balloons filled with his own breath (Artist's Breath/Fiato d'artista), and planning to sell his own blood as art (Artist's Blood/Sangue d'artista). In Artist's Shit, perhaps the most notorious of these works, Manzoni sealed 90 small cans with the text Artist's Shit (Merda d'Artista), the label stating that it was "freshly preserved." Each tin can weighed 30 grams and was sold for the current market price of gold, a clear reference to the tradition of the artist as alchemist practiced by Marcel Duchamp among others. This link between anality and art is a leitmotiv of the psychoanalytic movement (Perhaps Manzoni was influenced by Carl Jung).  In a letter to Ben Vautier in 1961 Manzoni wrote:

"I should like all artists to sell their fingerprints, or else stage competitions to see who can draw the longest line or sell their shit in tins. The fingerprint is the only sign of the personality that can be accepted: if collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there's the artist's own shit, that is really his."
The actual contents of the cans remains a much disputed enigma, since opening them would destroy the value of the artwork. In 2007 one of Manzoni's collaborators, Agostino Bonalumi, revealed that the tins are actually filled with plaster. However Manzoni's girlfriend Nanda Vigo, who helped to produce the cans, has claimed that they are actually filled with feces and an art dealer from the Gallery Blu in Milan claims to have detected a fecal odor emanating from a can. It is likely that the contents will never be revealed but that doesn't seem to concern collectors. In 2000 The Tate purchased a can for £22,300 and most recently cans  have been sold for  €124,000 and £97,250 in 2007 and 2008, respectively - quite a large increase from the original $37 in 1961. Actual feces or plaster, "It is a joke, a parody of the art market," Stephen Bury says, "a critique of consumerism and the waste it generates." Manzoni believed that the gullible art world would purchase anything signed by an artist, even a tin of feces. 


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