The story he told was that his father called his work shit, so Italian artist Piero Manzoni turned his own excrement into gold. In 1961, he sealed ninety cans of his feces, mounted each one to a plaque, and labeled them. The labels, written in Italian, English, German, and French, read: “Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit) / contents, 30 gr net / freshly preserved / produced and tinned / in May 1961.” The number of each can, along with Manzoni’s signature, was also printed on the labels.
In August of that year, he placed the cans on exhibit for the first time at the Galleria Pescetto of Albisola Marina and offered them to buyers at a price equal to the value of their weight in gold. Based on the price of gold in 1961, the average can in the series cost $37. In 1991, a can of Merda d’artista ostensibly was worth $395, but one was sold at auction for an unbelievable $67,000. Thus, a can of Manzoni’s shit had become more than 70 times more valuable than gold.
Manzoni intended for the artwork to make several statements. First, he wanted to expose the gullibility of the art-buying public and hypothesized that art buyers would buy anything—even shit—as long as it had the artist’s signature on it. Secondly, he wanted to make a comment about consumerism and the blind trust people had in purchasing items whose actual contents were unknown, like the canned meat manufactured in the cannery his father owned at the time. Manzoni was disgusted with the things people were willing to purchase—most of it crap, as far as he was concerned.
* * *
One year after moving us to California from Texas, away from any of our other family or friends, my father divorced my mother. When he left, my mom asked him if he wanted to go through the photo albums and picture boxes so he could take with him any pictures of my sister and me that he wanted. He declined.
When he moved out, he left the knob from the shifter of his 1982 Camaro on my older sister’s bed and the Z28 emblem from the center of the steering wheel on mine. My dad, sister, and I loved that car, but for different reasons. Alicia and I loved it because Dad would take us out with the glass T-top sections off and the windows down. If I’d been faster than Alicia at yelling “shotgun,” I’d sit in the front seat with my hand on the shifter so each time he had to change gears, he’d have to place his hand over mine. I’d feel like I was helping him drive. The three of us would cruise with the Ghostbusters theme song blaring from the speakers, as Alicia and I screamed out, “Ghostbusters!” every time the song asked, “Who you gonna call?” As soon as the song ended, we’d make him rewind the tape and play it again. But, my dad loved that car because he loves sporty cars. I think more than anything, my dad loved that car because in some way, the Camaro made him impressive to other people, and he needed that.
* * *
Aside from the touching, obsessive hand-washing and cleanup, most people’s concern with canning shit—whether one’s own or anyone else’s—is that the cans might explode. Feces are made up of mostly water and bacteria. Once contained, the anaerobic bacteria begin to build up in the liquid, making methane. Over time, enough methane gas can be produced to cause an explosion. One way to avoid this is to heat up the poop so that the anaerobic bacteria are killed. The other way is to dry out the excrement so there isn’t any liquid to produce the gas. In 1963, Manzoni wrote to a friend and said, “I hope these cans explode in the vitrines of the collectors.”
Sometime around 2002, an email began circulating that claimed to explain from where the word “shit” came. It read: “Certain types of manure used to be transported by ship. In dry form, it weighed a lot less, but once water (like sea water) hit it, it not only became heavier, but the process of fermentation began, producing methane gas. Since the manure was stored below decks, the methane would build up. One night, a man came below deck with a lantern, and the ship exploded. Several ships were destroyed before people figured out what was causing the explosions. After that, any cargo containing manure was stamped with the acronym S.H.I.T. (Store High In Transit), so that water would not come into contact with the poop and produce methane.”
The email provides a fantastic story and even has the ring of truth to it, but the word “shit” goes back much earlier. It dates back to at least the fourteenth century, well before the use of acronyms. Acronyms were not commonly used until the twentieth century, and the word “acronym” itself only dates back to 1943. The noun “shit” derives from the verb, not the other way around. The word shit comes from Old English “scite” (evolving into Middle English “shite). “Scite” derives from the Proto-Germanic root “skit,” which gives way to Dutch “schijten,” Swedish “skita,” German “scheissen,” and Danish “skide.” “Skit” comes from the Indo-European root “skei”—to split, divide, or separate. The verb “shit” is, therefore, closely related to the verb “shed”—the notion of separating oneself from waste. The noun “shit” appears in the sixteenth century as a description for both excrement and obnoxious or contemptible people.
* * *
One of the stories my dad tells is of his father slapping him. In this story, my dad is young, maybe sixteen and seventeen. The infraction is minor—disproportionate to the consequence—perhaps he has come home later than expected. His father, my grandfather, wears a mason ring and turns it around, pulls back his hand, and slaps my dad, splitting open his face. My father says nothing. He turns, wipes the blood off his cheek, and flings it onto the wall as he walks up the stairs to his room. As an adult, he smiles remembering that his parents had to repaint that wall. Ever since I can remember, my dad has referred to himself as the black sheep of his family. He is not wrong in that description.
As the third out of four children, my dad is neither the firstborn, the first son, nor the youngest. He’s shorter than the other three, and until much later, his career choice didn’t provide him with as much money as his siblings’ choices had. I don’t think he ever felt as though his parents or his siblings considered him worth much, genetically or otherwise. Marrying my mom had been the most remarkable thing he’d done. She was a nurse: smart, funny, thin, and beautiful.
They worked hard to start a family, buy a house, and buy themselves each a car. My dad’s dream car had always been a Corvette, but he loved that white Z28. And, while not exceedingly luxurious to his family, it was quite impressive to my parents’ friends and the people who resided in our middle-class neighborhood. We all referred to that car as “the son he never had.”
When I am 13, my dad picks me up from a voice lesson. I get in the car, and he tells me that Alicia has been in a car accident. She totaled the Camaro. We have lived in California for less than a year, and he had given it to her for Christmas. He assures me that she is okay. When I tell him I’m sorry about the car, he says that Alicia is the most important. The car is just a thing; things can be replaced. But, he has it towed to our house. He lets it sit in the garage for weeks. Every day, my sister has to walk past it and be reminded of what she has done. A few months later, the Z28 emblem and the knob shifter he leaves come with a note saying that he loves us and that we are still a family. For a long time, I think those pieces of the Camaro are the two most difficult things for him to leave behind.
* * *
Manzoni neither heated his shit nor dried it. Forty-five cans of Merda d’artista have exploded, making the remaining cans even more valuable. In 2000, the Tate Gallery spent £22,350, or about $32,000, of taxpayers’ money to purchase can number four. After receiving criticism for the purchase, the Tate made a statement: “The Manzoni was a very important purchase for an extremely small amount of money: nobody can deny that. He was an incredibly important international artist. What he was doing with his work was looking at a lot of issues that are pertinent to 20th-century art [sic], like authorship and the production of art. It was a seminal work.”
During an auction in 2007, a collector purchased a can for £81,000, or roughly $161,000. In June 2007, one of Manzoni’s collaborators, Agostino Bonalumi, revealed that the cans were not full of feces, but of plaster. The art world exploded.
* * *
My dad bought a hat with a plastic turd in the shape of a pretzel that sat on the bill. Where most hats say the name of a beer company or a sports team, it said “shit-head.” He used to wear it to the lake. Each summer we made many trips to Lake Tenkiller in Oklahoma, launched our boat, spent all day on the water: skiing, ski-bobbing, swimming, driving the boat over other boats’ wakes so we could fly. I spent hours in the water with my father while he tried to teach me to ski, unable to hide his frustration with me because I couldn’t get the hang of it. My mom wanted to wear swimsuits that she picked herself—one-pieces that covered the parts of her body about which she was insecure. He bought her string bikinis and harangued her about wearing them until she gave in and wore them, uncomfortable and embarrassed.
A couple of months after my parents separated, my dad announced to my sister and me that he had a girlfriend. The two of them celebrated their engagement before the divorce papers had been drafted, and they were married weeks after it was finalized. When my aunt Nancy found out how quickly he’d moved on from her sister and her nieces, she left my father a voicemail informing him that he was a piece of shit. He did not return her call.
* * *
So far, none of the collectors whose cans burst have reported on the contents. The collectors whose cans have not exploded will not open them, as that would destroy the meaning of the art. For those who believe in Manzoni’s art, whether or not the cans are full of shit or plaster does not matter. Again, the Tate issued a statement: “Keeping the viewer in suspense is part of the work’s subversive humor.” However, they did do some scientific testing: they held the can (it wasn’t as heavy as they thought it would be), they shook the can (it sounded like there was something in there; it made a rattling noise, like something dry), and they put it under an ultraviolet light to see if there were any fecal remnants on the lid or lip of the can. There weren’t.
Still, people seem obsessed with Manzoni’s Merda d’artista. Not because of the mystery surrounding the contents of the cans, and not because the cans might contain shit. Everybody shits. What we are obsessed with is the idea that we purge ourselves of ourselves, and we find what comes out disgusting. The notion that someone would pay for a can of someone else’s shit seems unreal, but as Manzoni pointed out, people invest in crap every day. Although, sometimes for the best of reasons.
For example, people invest in scientific studies that revolve around shit in the form of fossilized feces, or coprolites. In 2008, archaeologists found 14,300-year-old coprolites in a cave in Oregon. DNA results revealed the coprolites to be from humans, and the scientific world went aflutter. The ancient coprolites changed previous theories about the time period during which people were thought to have populated North America and how they got here. Originally, the Clovis culture was thought to be the earliest people on the continent, and supposedly, they got here by crossing the Bering Land Bridge to Alaska, migrating south through ice-free corridors. The Oregon excrement is one thousand years older than anything from the Clovis culture, and the ice-free corridors weren’t open 14,300 years ago. The Centre for Ancient Genetics concluded that the feces were probably from ancestors of some Native Americans living on the continent now.
However, there are other reasons for investing in or valuing fecal matter besides geography and anthropology, or even art. A person’s poop says a lot about him or her. As a research coordinator for a gastroenterology medical practice, my mom could determine a lot about the health of a patient depending on the color and consistency of his or her poop, what was in it, and how it smelled. When Alicia and I talked to my mom about her day, the topic almost always revolved around shit. We talked about it at the dinner table. We talked about it a lot.
* * *
We obsessed over my dad. We tried analyzing his reasons for leaving, for acting in ways that the three of us couldn’t understand. For example, he refused to call my sister and me at any other time besides early in the morning, after we repeatedly told him we couldn’t talk then because we were getting ready to go to school. We wondered about why, after he first left, he always said, “No,” whenever I called to ask if I could spend the night at his new apartment. The way everything needed to be on his terms. The way he talked to us and made us feel guilty for hurting, for being angry with him and the situation, for not understanding that we didn’t care what anyone thought; we needed time to reconcile the way our lives had been disrupted, and sometimes we needed to have him hug us and say, “I’m sorry,” or, “I’m sorry you are hurting.” Period. Without a “but.” Without then going on to explain how we made the situation worse, pointing out how we hurt him, or saying, “It’s time to move past this,” after it had only been a few months. We obsessed over his inability to do that. We couldn’t understand why he didn’t seem to realize and accept that we acted in the ways we did because we were children, and our immaturity wasn’t something to hold over our heads but something, as the parent, he needed to help us work through.
* * *
In 1978, French psychoanalyst Dominique Laporte wrote Histoire de la merda in which he examines how cultural values and priorities are revealed through civilization’s techniques for dealing with excrement. Laporte cites two edicts passed down by the French monarchy in the sixteenth century. The first states that the French language must be free of all impurities, and the second requires that each household must collect its own waste and dispose of it in order to keep the streets clean. He goes on to explain how modern sanitation practices impacted individuality. He argues that the different ways in which a person involves himself or herself in things like feces is what defines the subject. For example, turning it into fertilizer or using it as a product that enhances beauty makes it valuable. If we employ it, instead of hiding it, then we can turn our shit into gold, just like Manzoni did.
In 1993, when Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury translated the book into English, they summarized the work this way: “History of Shit suggests that the management of human waste is crucial to our identities as modern individuals… Laporte argues, we are thoroughly mired in it, particularly when we appear our most clean and hygienic.” Laporte says that civilization wallows in filth, and because we naturally wallow in it, those who appear the cleanest and most proper are the most entrenched in it. His argument becomes a metaphor for how society and individuals deal with all things unpleasant. In order to know who we are and to better ourselves, we have to look at and analyze the parts not only of ourselves, but also of others that we would rather conceal or even shed. He writes:
This little pile of shit, heaped here before my door, is mine, and I challenge any to malign its form. This little heap is my thing, my badge, a tangible sign of that which distinguishes me from, or likens me to, my neighbor. It is also what distinguishes him from me. His heap will never be mine. Whether he be friend or foe, this alone will allow me to recognize if we are alike: neat, clean, negligent, disgusting, or obviously rotten.
In other words, it’s the crap we wade through, and the way we deal with it that defines us and distinguishes us from one another. We all have different adversities to overcome, both internal and external, but it isn’t the challenges themselves that separate or unite us; it’s our willingness to overcome them, and how we choose to do so, that speak to our individuality. Those who embrace shit head-on can learn from the crap others have gone through more so than those who attempt to cover it, let it build and fester, because eventually the shit will runneth over.
* * *
Piero Manzoni died at the age of twenty-nine. I want to believe that his father was proud of him, or at least appreciated the impact his son made on the art world. I don’t know if Manzoni’s father ever wound up appreciating his work, or if the two of them ever understood each other.
At the age of thirty-four, I still don’t understand my father. In my head, he is two different people. There’s the Daddy from when I was a little girl, who nicknamed me Pooh because I was so cuddly; the Daddy who, as far as I was concerned, could fix anything. I have this image of him carrying me to the car after I split open my knee. His hands, strong and capable, swoop me up, and they feel like security. I want to preserve that. But, also, there’s the Dad who left parts of a car on my bed and then walked out the door, the Dad who is oftentimes insensitive and distant.
He comes to visit me. It’s been three years since I’ve seen him. He doesn’t stay at a hotel; he doesn’t rent a car. He leaves himself at the mercy of our visit. For the first time, he leaves himself vulnerable. Not long after he arrives, I realize that I don’t know much about him: what he likes to eat, what kind of coffee he drinks, and in turn, he doesn’t know much about me. His first night at my house, I lie on my couch, curl up and cry into a pillow for an hour after he goes to bed. For four days I try to make him see me as more than a hanger-on from his past. Mostly, we engage in small talk: we discuss the drought in California; we drive around town and I show him parts of Fresno and the campus where I teach. In the mornings, he sits at my kitchen table and works on his laptop. He plays with my kids and smiles a warm, patient smile when my son can’t remember to call him “Grandpa.”
On the last day of his stay, I show him some of the work I did in graduate school. I read him a part of my writing, and I look up to see that he is teary-eyed. I don’t know if it’s because for the first time he sees value in my work—in me—and mostly, he’s missed it. But, maybe, he gets teary-eyed because it’s breathtakingly bad. He once said to me, “Well, if your intention was for people to not get it, then mission accomplished.”
When I take him to the airport, he hugs me and says he wishes we could do this more often. He texts me when he reaches the gate and says he is proud. My eyes burn, and I blink back tears. Nothing much changes after he gets home. We text each other, occasionally, and I know we will call each other on birthdays and holidays. But, he is proud via text message. If I’m being honest, I’m proud of him, too. I don’t know what that means, really, nor do I know where we go from here. But, that’s where we are, for whatever it’s worth.
Melanie Kachadoorian has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and teaches at Fresno State. Her work has appeared in Monkey Puzzle and If and Only If.