Museum Boijmans van Beuningen
According to Gelatin member Wolfgang Gantner, “The question isn’t why poop, but why not poop?” A video discussion accompanying the group’s recent show of monumental turd sculptures further clarifies the choice of subject matter with references to “democratic art” and how we all create it, starting at the earliest age. The four giant piles were set atop Oriental rugs to accentuate their high art status.
Vienna-based Gelatin (Gantner, Tobias Urban, Ali Janka, and Florian Reither) produce “rebellious, playful, and welcoming” works. At the entrance to “Vorm—Fellows—Attitude,” soft sculpture costumes—each with a sewn-on abstraction of exposed male and female genitalia—were offered to viewers in a makeshift dressing room. The different colors presumably symbolized fictional races. The point was to offer people a way to free their minds, adopt a different persona, and join in on the eccentric fun. In the dressing area, a couple of whoopee cushions were affixed to the seating to produce predictable sounds.
Turd-centered works of art have, of course, appeared before, including Paul McCarthy’s Complex Pile (2007). Also monumental, this inflatable, outdoor work comically escaped its moors to tumble and crash into a building in Switzerland in 2008, an event widely reported in the international press. The contemporary tradition can be traced back to Piero Manzoni’s iconic Artist’s Shit (1961), which commented on the art world and the phenomenon of the artist’s brand. (Manzoni’s work may actually include other items as reported by Stuart Jeffries in “Shit! Manzoni’s work doesn’t do what it says on the tin,” in The Guardian, 2007.) In 1998, Marc Quinn followed Self (1991), a self-portrait made from his own blood, with Shit Head. Finally Wilfredo Prieto’s Excrement and Caviar (2011) bitingly symbolizes the excesses of our time. It was not entirely certain what Gelatin hoped to add to the discourse, though they made their meaning quite clear in the following statement: “This is a show for all who think that contemporary art is shit. They should come and see this shit show. They will be satisfied.”
Gelatin’s sculptures, presumably made of plaster and clay, were striking for their textures. Up close, the detail was fascinating, and I became intrigued by how the surfaces might have been achieved. At the same time, however, I was repulsed by the forms (because I knew what they were supposed to be?) and kept looking away, not wanting to touch them or even think about their connotations. So much for an exploration of materials and creative process—and maybe that was part of the point.
Such unusual material transformations are at the root of Gelatin’s practice. In 2005, for example, they hung a frozen sculpture made from human urine from the second story of a building in Moscow, where it clung like a thickened icicle in winter. In 1999, they designed a “human elevator,” with a group of people lifting a person up instead of a machine. “Vorm—Fellows—Attitude” continued in this vein, if not with total success. Despite the promise, I, for one, was not satisfied. For me, the show created a friction: while I instinctively liked the work for its YBA-style humor and mediagenic quality, I also found it intellectually too light, too late, maybe a little too art-scene cool. In the end, perhaps that was more off-putting than the gross-out subject matter— any formal interest or appreciation was awk- wardly and comically stopped in its tracks.