“Everything an artist spits is art.”
In 1933, at the height of the European avant-garde, amidst a constant need to create new works to shock the public, Piero Manzoni was born. This Italian artist became one of the most innovating and representative characters of the conceptual movement. Brimming with creativity, his works were full of absurd images loaded with irony and social commentary.
He believed the artist was not intended to be a supreme, untouchable figure. Through his anthropomorphic creations, silhouettes of strange objects, surfaces covered in gesso, or even line drawings rolled up into cardboard tubes, he paved the way for a world where the normal was becoming passé. He found his place in the art world through the conceptual.
Manzoni’s works were a sort of interiorized body art. His body produced art, so everything that came from him was also art.
One of his offerings included the titled Artist’s Breath, where he inflated several balloon with the air from his lungs. At another point, for the Consumption of Art by the Art-Devouring Public exhibit, he marked 70 boiled eggs with his thumbprint for the public to eat. His Living Sculptures project revolved around the artist signing the bodies of several models and gallery visitors to transform them into walking exhibits.
This creative madness led him to carry out his most revolutionary and acclaimed work at the age of 28: Artist’s Shit. There wasn’t anything figurative about the title. It was exactly 90 cans of his own feces, with a label with the date of production and his signature. He proceeded to sell these pieces for the price he believed was fair: the can in exchange for its weight in gold.
Manzoni’s work gained recognition as well as insults. However, his untimely death, only two years later, created the perfect excuse to consecrate his art as one of the most overwhelming offerings of the twentieth century. It became an invaluable evidence of both the avant-garde and the artist’s egocentricity. The Italian conceptualist wanted to prove the way artists are glorified by showing how anything presented by them would be admired by the audience.
Being influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaism, Salvador Dalí’s Surrealism, as well as the works of Georges Bataille and Alfred Jarri, it’s no wonder that he compared his waste with the sublime. This is simply another way to demonstrate the ferocious consumption in the art world.
There’s speculation that 30 years after the auteur’s death, his friend Agostino Bonalumi revealed the cans only contained plaster. However, none of the cans has ever been opened to discover if the claim is true. Art? Practical joke? It was all the same to Manzoni. He did it because he knew he could. His mockery set a new bar by facing the critics with such a bold work. His pieces are now exhibited at the most important museums, and the cans are worth over 250 thousand Euros.
It’s likely that if Manzoni had lived to see how people admire his work, he’d burst out laughing. He has proved a point: the public would buy anything sold to them as art, even shit.
There are plenty bizarre moments in recent art history, sometimes the tale behind the works is just as fascinating. There’s the day when Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol got into a fight over a woman, as well as the collaboration between Marina Abramovic and Lady Gaga.
Translated by María Suárez