Of excrementally large proportions

Cloaca offers viewers shit for thought

Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has amassed a repertoire of memorable projects and installations over the course of his career from live pigs tattooed with Harley Davidson insignia to sculptures of cement trucks which are comprised of ornate teak. The artist utilizes mechanized systems and an array of technologies to produce uncanny results: from an entire interlocking tiled floor of deli counter meats to soccer goals in Limoges created from porcelain and stained glass. Beyond many of these absurd undertakings is his seeming career-long obsession with re-inventing the Cloaca project more endearingly referred to as the “poop machine.”

Delvoye’s current manifestation of this installation is on view at the Glenbow Museum until August 17. Entitled Cloaca No. 5 it continues to produce impressive results. It must be understood that everyone who views this work or writes about it will have some form of poop-joke to drop into the conversation.

This elaborate machine mimics the digestion of the human body and produces excrement disquietingly similar in colour and consistency to our own. Upon arriving at the Glenbow’s second floor you will encounter the Cloaca machine standing upright in all its technological and fecal-generating glory.

The small room behind the Cloaca installation provides a pretext for the entire project. A black-walled room engages the audience as a preliminary space well-suited to the museum housing the artwork. Sleek cylindrical metallic viewing stations by Netherlands design firm De Wijs offer anyone who sets their eyes into the science-lab style sockets a magnificent 3D slide show of the Cloaca projects’ various manifestations. These are a long way from the Disney viewfinder but you wouldn’t expect less from Delvoye. Cloaca No. 5’s predecessor 2005’s Cloaca Quattro can be viewed through the pristine viewer and offers a glimpse of its suped-up washer-dryer combo design complete with some of the tattooed pigs of the past exhibitions. We witness turds dispensed from this machine or “outputs” as they are referred to as resembling more of a cow pie than human excrement. The original Cloaca was installed in 2000 at MuHKA Antwerp’s contemporary art gallery. We see the evolution of the machine through various installations and as a byproduct the evolution of its “outputs.” The original machine is a more elongated row of scientific experiments connecting pipes and tubes from one transparent container to the next. The chemical treatments for each phase of the digestion of the food from the introduction of various enzymes (pancreatine bile NaHCO3 and AGAR are a few listed in the accompanying drawings by the artist in the black room) are visible through transparent containers.

Cloaca No. 5 is presented here with a logo similar to Chanel’s famous perfume. This machine is a more streamlined version and is designed to mimic the body further through a vertical digestive trajectory. It personifies both the body of an invalid confined to a hospital bed complete with caretakers and bedpan in the form of an acrylic box to catch any drips below the conveyor belt and a deity whose elevated feed-hole requires an attendant to climb a staircase to provide an offering. At the machine’s feeding time two young women enter the space suited in Cloaca uniforms. Today’s menu is apples rice and bread along with pitchers of water. Yesterday one of the officials tells a number of people gathered around it was salmon. Apparently the machine is not working well today. It is a little constipated or perhaps has stage fright. How would you feel if a crowd of visitors regularly gathered to witness you to defecate? We are told the machine usually produces at 3 p.m. or midnight. “Shit!” I overhear a disgruntled observer utter as he exits the exhibition.

This work engages with a panoply of theories about the body technology and the future of each as their significant evolutionary paths intertwine overlap and potentially merge. As we contemplate replacement systems for the body whose cosmic waste in the event of death seems an unnecessary loss it is projects like Delvoye’s that beyond its wealth of hilarity and incredible articulation encompass the eerie notion that Cloaca No. 5 will serve humans in some instrumental way. For now we can still gleefully attend the production of a genuine kind of shit for mass consumption. The novelty that a machine can make us both giddy about its mimicry of our own bodies skeptical of a robotic pooper who might eventually outstrip even our own pooping (!) or at least provide some insight through the mechanization of a bodily function brings us face to face with an eerily beautiful rendition of the abject.