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New York art exhibit displays digestive system

By Daniel Neman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Published: May 25, 2024, 6:04am

It wasn’t the best work of art I’ve ever seen. But in many ways, it was the most memorable.

We were in New York City in January 2002, to celebrate my wife’s birthday. It was a few months after 9/11, and hotels were desperate for customers. Any customers. Even us.

We stayed at the fabled Plaza Hotel for less than the cost of a Courtyard by Marriott in Indianapolis or Hampton Inn in Omaha today. The hotel was fabulous. The room was fabulous. The birthday meal at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park — cooked and served by the student chefs who have no doubt gone on to culinary greatness — was fabulous.

On Broadway, we saw the play “Proof,” with Jennifer Jason Leigh, who had taken over the role from the Tony-winning Mary-Louise Parker. It remains one of the very top theatrical highlights of my life. So far, everything was wonderful. I don’t even remember it being as cold as New York can get in late January.

And then we decided to go to the New Museum of Contemporary Art. I’m the sort of person who goes to museums on vacation, and we had never been to that particular one.

Several artists had their works displayed there at the time. I remember one guy had placed what must have been a teeny, tiny camera on the back of a crawly insect of some sort. The result looked exactly as you think it would.

But it was the installation in the first gallery that drew most of the attention. It certainly drew mine.

It was called “Cloaca,” by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. And it was a man-made, mechanical, see-through digestive tract.

It was 10 feet high and probably close to 20 feet long. Twice a day, every day, a museum employee climbed a ladder to the top and poured a large plate full of food into a funnel, which acted as the machine’s mouth.

Because the artist is Belgian, the food came from a nearby Belgian restaurant, or at least it did the day I was there.

The food slowly wound its way through a system of tubes and pipes, just as it goes through your own esophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine. At anatomically appropriate places, such as the beaker that represented the stomach, a bit of acid was added.

We could follow along with the food as it made its long journey through the system, breaking down from identifiable ingredients into an indistinguishable mass.

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And at the end of the machine, it pooped.

We’re talking actual poop here, if mechanically produced. It looked like poop. It apparently smelled like poop, although by the time we got there they had figured out a way to reduce the odor in the room. It was squeezed out of a metal tube onto a conveyor belt.

From there, it was encased in Lucite, I believe, and sold for something like a thousand bucks a pile. Who would buy it? People who wanted to take some art home with them and display it in their living room, I guess.

At this point I’d like to belatedly apologize to basically anyone who is still reading. Especially anyone who is reading it over their morning Cheerios.

I apologize because you’re now thinking about how those Cheerios will be making that same journey. Which of course is the whole point of the exhibit. It’s the natural result of eating food, it’s how we get the energy for our bodies to run.

Was it actually art? I wasn’t sure at the time, and I still don’t know. It was a machine designed to demonstrate a scientific function, in some respects not unlike one of those depictions of the solar system with planets circling the sun.

But I’ll admit I was fascinated by it. I don’t know if it was the 6-year-old boy in me or a more adult manifestation of scientific curiosity, but I must have examined it for at least 20 minutes.