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Indepth Arts News:

"Wim Delvoye: Cloaca"
2002-01-25 until 2002-02-17
New Museum of Contemporary Art
New York, NY, USA

The New Museum of Contemporary Art will present the U.S. debut of Wim Delvoye's Cloaca, an elaborate, room-sized installation that replicates the human digestive system in the Museum's first floor gallery. Built from an astonishing array of laboratory glassware, electric pumps, plastic tubing and computer monitors, this unique biotechnical installation was designed by Delvoye in collaboration with scientists at the University of Antwerp. Cloaca is fed a variety of nutritious meals twice daily. It then chews, swallows, digests, and eliminates.

Cloaca is the summation of many of the ideas that have informed Delvoye's art and is the most significant work yet made by this leading member of a new generation of European artists. Over the past decade, Delvoye has produced a series of sculptures and installations based on a juxtaposition of opposites-soccer goals fabricated in stained glass, concrete mixers made from intricately carved mahogany, and butane gas containers covered in Delft-like decorations-that subvert the object's intrinsic function and social role to explore the relationship between appearance and interpretation. Recurring materials and themes in Delvoye's work question the notions of elitism and preciousness that often accompany art objects in Western culture: the vulgar (tattooing live pigs with Harley Davidson logos, lovers' names, and bleeding hearts); the trivial (shovels and ironing boards decorated with heraldic motifs); and plebeian foodstuffs (salami and ham used to create elaborate mosaics and potato peelings used to write a love letter in Arabic).

Cloaca brings together trends in contemporary art that are usually considered separately. At one extreme is a growing interest in how art and technology intersect, particularly with regard to where life begins and ends, and the impact of artificial intelligence, robotics, software, and bioengineering on cultural production. At the opposite end of the critical spectrum is the investigation of abjection as a fundamental part of the human condition. Cloaca addresses both of these areas of inquiry by drawing direct parallels between the contemplation of art, the contemplation of our body and its functions, and the degree to which each are effected by advances in medicine, gene mapping, and technology. In its imitation of human behavior, Cloaca even functions as a modern-day golem.

Although Cloaca's embodiment of contemporary culture depends on its combination of art, science and technology, it also has important art historical precedents. Delvoye's fascination with the power of the machine to simulate human activity contains echoes of such early 20th century experiments as Fernand Leger's Ballet Mechanique (1924) or Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass (1915-1923), which attempted to articulate a machine-based consciousness for human behavior. More contemporary figures, such as Paul McCarthy or Damien Hirst, have also created work in which robotics have been used to blur the distinction between human consciousness and its mechanical replica. Although a wide range of artists have used food as the basis of their investigations, the iconography of the scatological has more specific roots in Duchamp's Fountain (1917), a ready-made porcelain urinal purchased from a plumbing supply store, and Piero Manzoni's Merda d'Artista (1961), a can of the artist's own excrement. Indeed, in its real-life uselessness Cloaca extends the Duchampian questioning of the nature and purpose of art into a realm that is close to contemporary science fiction.

Cloaca's mouth is an opening leading to a blending mechanism that chews the food before it begins the 27-hour-long digestive trajectory. Six glass vats connected by tubes, pipes, pumps and various electronic components are Cloaca's stomach, pancreas and small and large intestines. The food is kept at constant temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit and each of Cloaca's organs contains 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 on to a conveyer belt. Local restaurants including Barolo, Jerry's, MARKT, and Savoy will provide meals for Cloaca. A daily public feeding will take place at 4.30.pm. Cloaca eliminates regularly at 2.30.pm. EDITORS: Please call to confirm schedule.

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