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Art or Crap - Literally? Decoding Artist's Shit by Piero Manzoni

  • Piero Manzoni - Merda D'artista, 1961
January 14, 2020
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

During the 1960s, the art world changed more than ever before due to a set of entirely new demands coming from young people willing to change society. By proposing radical, nonconforming and politically charged concepts aimed to dismantle the very notion of artwork, the institution and the ideology, artists pushed the boundaries further, and the one whose name is of special relevance in art history was Piero Manzoni.

During his short life, this memorable figure managed to produce an oeuvre infused with criticism and rooted in humor that was rather unprecedented at the time. Manzoni belonged to the generation of artists recognized by the Italian art critic Germano Celant as the proponents of Arte Povera, a term coined for and promoted at his inaugural 1967 exhibition In Spazio or The Space of Thoughts. All the participants coming from different Italian cities including Manzoni shared a common interest in taking a radical stance towards the art system by releasing poor art with practically no means in unconventional art spaces, accompanied by performative gestures and written statements that were often socially or politically charged. Arte Povera was a sort of a progeny of Conceptual art, although the context of the Italian society, still struggled with Fascism, was overtly different to those in other Western countries, especially the United States.

The same can be said for Piero Manzoni, due to the fact that by 1967 he was already an avid art radical who challenged the contemporary tendencies with his artworks, especially the infamous and still often debated 1961 piece simply titled Merda d’artista or Artist’s Shit.

Piero Manzoni - Linea Lunga 7200 metri
Piero Manzoni – Linea Lunga 7200 metri – Den Lange Linje, 1960. Image creative commons.

Piero Manzoni – Presenting Feces As Art

In 1961, Piero Manzoni produced ninety cans of Artist’s Shit, all numbered on the lid from 001 to 090 with a label printed in Italian, English, French and German, marking the content as 30gr of freshly preserved, produced and tinned artist’s feces. Later that year, he wrote in a letter to the fellow artist Ben Vautier:

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.

This particular artwork is a continuation of Manzoni’s multiples series such as eggs imprinted with his thumbprints, balloons pumped with his own breath. They were exhibited at the Milanese Gallery Aziumt, a short-lived exhibition space Manzoni founded together with the artist Enrico Castellani in 1959, and were based on the fetishization and commodification of the artist’s own bodily features.

At the time the Artist’s Shit cans appeared they were considered highly controversial, probably as an act of a lunatic or a dilettante since it was not certain whether they actually contained Manzoni’s feces or not. The curiosity is that he was apparently triggered by his father, an owner of the cannery, who once said to him “Your work is shit.”

However, the intention is clear – Manzoni made this ready-made in a Duchampian manner to mock consumerism inflicting on the art world and the bourgeoisie taste formed by the market. It was the artist’s subversive gesture aimed to penetrate the social taboos in a similar manner like Dadaist used to do it. The art critic and the artist Jon Thompson nicely emphasized Manzoni’s agenda:

Manzoni’s critical and metaphorical reification of the artist’s body, its processes, and products, pointed the way towards an understanding of the persona of the artist and the product of the artist’s body as a consumable object. The Merda d’artista, the artist’s shit, dried naturally and canned ‘with no added preservatives’, was the perfect metaphor for the bodied and disembodied nature of artistic labor: the work of art as fully incorporated raw material, and its violent expulsion as a commodity. Manzoni understood the creative act as part of the cycle of consumption: as a constant reprocessing, packaging, marketing, consuming, reprocessing, packaging, ad infinitum.

Piero Manzoni with Artist's Shit cans by Giovanni Ricci.
Piero Manzoni with Artist’s Shit cans by Giovanni Ricci. Image via themilancityjournal.com

Artist’s Shit – The Content of a Work of Art

The information regarding the sold cans of Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit is not known, although a receipt dated 23 August 1962 proves that one can was sold to poet Alberto Lùcia for 30 grams of 18-carat gold. This decision is affiliated with the tradition of artists like such as Marcel Duchamp or Yves Klein to act as alchemists.

The artist and Manzoni’s friend Agostino Bonalumi claimed that these objects are filled with plaster, not feces. It wasn’t possible to expose them to x-ray scanning since the cans are made of steel, so the true content of Artist’s Shit remained veiled with a secret. Interestingly so, in 1989 Bernard Bazile exhibited an opened can of Manzoni’s work, naming it Opened can of Piero Manzoni. It consisted of the unopened, wrapped object.

Artist’s Shit gained fame during the 1990s after media followed the lawsuit case of a Danish art museum accused by art collector John Hunov of damaging the can that was exhibited at the museum in 1994. The museum was found guilty of exposing the can to inadequately high temperatures, and so it had to pay quite a large sum to the collector.

Piero Manzoni and His Artist’s Shit

The Iconic Status of Artist’s Shit

At present time, this object/ready-made/gestural work is considered as one of the landmark pieces of the post-war avant-garde which early on posed critically charged questions regarding the authenticity of the artwork, the role of institutions, the art market, and the artist’s persona.

In recent years, Artist’s Shit unfortunately became commodified to a full extent after one of the cans was sold at Sotheby’s auction for €124,000 in 2007, an another, number 83, was auctioned a year later with an estimate of £50,000–70,000 and was sold for an outrages sum of £97,250. In 2015, can number 54 was sold at Christie’s for £182,500, while the following year an art auction in Milan sold one of the tins for a record of €275,000.

The way this Maznoni’s artwork was handled makes it even more powerful due to the ridiculousness of the art market and the way it constantly tends to market any possible item regardless of the context and the intent of the artwork.

gold 1961Editors’ Tip: Manzoni

Piero Manzoni was the enfant terrible of the post-war Italian avant-garde before his untimely death in Milan in 1963 at the age of just twenty-nine. Curated by Germano Celant, the artist’s premier scholar and author of the two editions of the Manzoni catalogues raisonné’s (Milan, 1975 and Milan, 2004), this stunning catalogue spans Manzoni’s entire oeuvre, including works belonging to the Manzoni archives as well as several international museums and private collections. In addition, it presents several works by Manzoni’s American and European contemporaries. Manzoni’s alignments and responses to other artists active at the time, from Robert Rauschenberg to Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana to Robert Ryman, and Cy Twombly to Jasper Johns, demonstrate his own decisive contribution to the art of the late fifties and early sixties.

Featured image: Piero Manzoni – Merda D’artista, 1961. Image via creative commons.