BY Gavin Turk in Reviews | 06 JUN 98
Featured in
Issue 41

Piero Manzoni’s Absolute Images

The artist’s most well-known work is Artist’s Shit

BY Gavin Turk in Reviews | 06 JUN 98

My first encounter with Manzoni’s legacy was during one of the first installments in a now well-worn discussion about the possibilities that lie before you as an artist. ‘I mean, anything could be art...’ An empty room, an ideal form of purity, was mentioned as one possibility. ‘That’s already been done’, somebody said. ‘Well what about if it had a shit in it?’ ‘Naw, that wouldn’t work. How would you get anyone to take it seriously?’ The conversation moved on to something else.

A while later I remember visualising an exhibition from someone’s description: on the walls of a brilliant white space hung sheets of the artist’s used toilet paper. The labels, with consecutive dates, showed how, for a period of time, the creator had meticulously kept everything they’d made. It still seems possible that this show may have taken place, although when, where and by whom remain a mystery.

Eventually the name Manzoni caught up with the idea of presenting one’s shit as one’s art - an idea that artists frequently return to. An inescapable making process: the getting rid of stuff; the recycling of material; the creation of a substance that stands as a testament to being alive; making ones mark; a non-hierarchical signature or sign of existence; an exegesis.

At artschool, I had only seen the work itself in reproduction (of the poor, photo-copied kind), when I was asked to give a presentation and wanted to show a slide of one of Manzoni’s works. I found myself passing a stool all of my own into a glass jar and, adding no preservatives, replaced the lid and forged a signed label on the front.

When I finally saw a decent picture of one of Manzoni’s 90 Artist’s Shit pieces, I was struck by the curious combination of references conjured up by the way that the shit had been framed. Firstly, and most obviously, you can’t actually see the artist’s shit. The frame: the tin, whose function is for the preservation of food stuffs, is the detritus that once emptied, gets thrown away. The tin in this case becomes the only thing that the viewer sees, the ‘real’ work still existing in a space of anticipation. A kind of Schrödinger’s cat experiment where the results might also refer to the way in which the audience would enjoy direct contact, similar to Manzoni’s hard boiled eggs of 1960, by swallowing the entire exhibition in 70 minutes.

The labels on the tin have now turned a gratifying brown. The cosmopolitan nature of the texts written in English, German and Italian is diffused by non-personalised and non-classical descriptions of the contents. On the top of the can there is a label printed with the words ‘produced by’ followed by a space in which Manzoni himself has penned a signature. An edition number is stamped underneath. There is a feeling that this could be ‘artist’s shit’ produced by somebody else. The use of the word ‘artist’ in this work is contradictory to Manzoni’s wish ‘to make images as absolute as possible, that will not be valid for what they recall, explain or express, but only for what they are: being’.

Anyway, in the case of the cans, the frame and the contents fuse together, unlike the mutant substitute that I had accidentally given rise to, where the stool was clearly visible through the glass of the jar and there was no mention of artists or shit, just the name Piero Manzoni and the date 1.2.62, a bewildering reduction of one of the most reflexive works of art ever made.

The Manzoni exhibition at the newly modernised Serpentine, allowed me to see in the flesh many works that I had only become familiar with in reproduction. I expected to find myself rushing to gawp at Artist’s Shit; the encased lines (especially the infinite one); Magic Base; Socle du Monde and the various egg pieces, but instead I found myself drifting toward the enigmatic Achrome sculptures: two, much smaller than expected, white, hook-containing, maquette-like, Twomblyesque works of 1959 and the white rabbit skin ball placed on a stack of burnt wood chocks of 1961. These works seemed to convey an atavistic presence. They were difficult to explain. They were not metaphors or allegories but just things... Achromes.

The Achrome paintings shared this inexplicable quality. For example, the series of stitched paintings were very physically produced. The work has a hand-made quality. The stitching wavers, becoming more and less visible in parts. The paint (a china clay) is not so much brushed as trowelled onto the surface, the lack of colour stops any picture emerging. The frame is full of stuff but emptied out of pictures.

The show, however, was dominated by the Achrome works: I was hoping that there would be greater evidence in the exhibition of the more contemporary elements of Manzoni’s work - the interactive nature of some of his ideas and proposals. For example, the plans that he was developing for an electronically controlled labyrinth that could be used for psychological tests and brainwashing. Or the Placentarium project for which he was working on proposals for large inflatable auditoria.

Piero Manzoni died in his studio on the 6th of February 1963, aged 30. Allegedly the cause of death was rupture of the liver from excessive consumption of rich food and drink.