‘Artist's Shit’ by Piero Manzoni under UV light. (Courtesy of Tate Modern, London.)
‘Artist's Shit’ by Piero Manzoni under UV light. (Courtesy of Tate Modern, London.)

The Italian artist went on to sell his ‘art’ for the price of its weight in gold. This made many people very angry, mostly because no one could work out whether it was a disgusting and demeaning insult to the public, or whether it was an absurdly clever piece of modern art. Almost 50 years on, one of these cans sits on a plinth in one of the most popular art galleries in the world, London's Tate Modern, where it still provokes outrage and admiration in equal measure.

Manzoni intended the cans to play a subversive role in the art world, following on from Duchamp's Fountain, which was a urinal he placed in an art museum in 1917. Like many surreal moments, they cease to be so when ignored or accepted by the establishment. In 2006, fearing the latter had happened, 77-year-old artist Pierre Pinoncelli attacked a replica of the urinal with a hammer in the Centre Pompidou, Paris. He was arrested and prosecuted for damaging the artwork, but succeeded in avoiding paying for the damages by arguing that Duchamp would have approved.

Excrement is arguably the original man-made material – producing it is an act of creation in which we are all involved. However disgusting we may find it, there is a certain pride associated with doing it well, or at least regularly. Prior to Manzoni, it was the feces of kings and queens that were most valued because of their importance in medical diagnosis. For instance, the stools of the British king, George III, were port-colored during his bout of madness, one of the clues that enabled historians and scientists in recent times to diagnose that his insanity had a physical origin, namely the condition porphyria.

In contrast, the normal brown color of stools is produced by a combination of bile and bilirubin, the former producing the yellow overtones, while the red pigment bilirubin comes from red blood cells, and also fluoresces. Excrement also contains anerobic bacteria from the gut that break down the fecal matter, and it is this bacteria that poses the main problem for anyone wanting to preserve excrement. These bacteria do not require oxygen and will continue to thrive in a sealed can, building up gases and ultimately causing explosion.

To kill such bacteria, two alternative strategies can be employed prior to canning. The first is pasturization, an extremely unpleasant process of heating to kill the bacteria. The alternative is the drying of excrement, which occurs naturally on a sunny day in every pasture in the land. Sun-dried excrement is not only easier to preserve, but is also a useful fuel when it originates from certain animals, the best examples of which are the bison and the cow. Unfortunately, dog excrement is not as useful in this respect, which is a pity given its prevalence in cities and the awkward problem of its disposal.

London's Materials Library was recently given an opportunity to examine the can of Artist's Shit owned by the Tate Modern: to investigate nondestructively whether there was excrement in the can (a podcast of the tests can be found at www.tate.org.uk/modern/tours/materialslibrary/).

The first test performed was to gently shake the can. This revealed an acoustic signature highly suggestive of a granular material. There was no audio evidence of the presence of a liquid nor the did the can show signs of bulging, which supports the view that if the can does indeed contain excrement it might be of the sun-dried variety. The Materials Library then examined the can using optical microscopy under ultraviolet (UV) light to look for signs of fluorescence arising from bilirubin pigment that might have been spilled during canning. However, although they found areas that seemed to show signs of spillage, this was not associated with any fluorescent markers and is thought instead to be more likely the result of flux used during the canning process. A more sophisticated test, such as a magnetic resonance image (MRI) scan, was ruled out because of the ferric nature of the can. And although X-rays could have be used it was recognized that even a synchrotron would not be able to identify the contents of the can unambiguously as excrement.

The current value of a Manzoni can is around $30?000. This price tag alone is perhaps the most extraordinary and surreal element of the art.

So does it matter whether there is any excrement in the can at all?

Currently, the only sure way of knowing is to open the can, but this would destroy the art and the price tag. This then is perhaps the art world's equivalent of Schrodinger's cat, where uncertainty is the key to the power of the idea. There is one other way to collapse the Manzoni wavefunction, which is to ask someone who was there when the cans were created. No such interviews exist, but when Manzoni's mother was asked, she shook her head and said, “He's a nice boy.” Surely a statement as contradictory as any in quantum theory.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70111-6