– Autumn/Winter 2008

Who Writes This Shit?

Paul Elliman

Everything conspires
To hide the mess of inner living

- John Ashbery1

From mud baths to intestinal-looking roller-coasters made of old timber and furniture, installations by gelitin, the four-man art collective from Vienna, are chaotic, body-charging assemblages of found debris and waste materials. The Shitplex (2006) involved an actual intestinal roller coaster ride: a toilet-cabin, installed with a periscopemirror mechanism, provides the user of the toilet with a spectacular and rarely seen 'rear' view of the action. As if to clarify in writing one of the production themes of their work - that nothing need be wasted - gelitin have rendered an organic-looking typeface from their own bodily waste. Das Kakabet (2007) presents the defecated alphabet in a book that - at last - functions as a type specimen for both typographer and gastroenterologist, though with its excessive coffee-table format it is just as likely to be mistaken for a glossy catalogue of Viennese chocolate letters.

But these calligraphic swirls, in every rubicund shade of autumnal brown, have already been eaten. At least once. Here they are brought back to scabrous life, photographed in situ (to use a term), in the place where shit and language have always responded best to each other: the contemplative, graffiti-inscribed setting of the toiletbowl.

The 'analphabet' is a messy way to remind us that the mouth is not the only bodily orifice from which our communications flow. Our language is also an elaborate means by which the repression of all kinds of waste, including excrement, is ritually organised. Or, as Sigmund Freud saw it, an overly keen sense of distaste produces its anal equivalent in reverse: an obsession

  1. John Ashbery, 'Dear Sir or Madam', Wakefulness, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

  2. See Laura Kendrick, Animating the Letter, Columbus: Ohio State, 1999.

  3. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 'The Reasons that Induced Dr S to write a Poem call'd the Lady's Dressing room' (1734), Essays and Poems and Simplicity, A Comedy (eds. Robert Halsband and Isobel Grundy), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

  4. J. Hillis Miller, 'Moments of Decision in Bleak House', in John O. Jordan (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p.55.

  5. Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (trans. N. Denny), Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1982, p.1065.

  6. See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.

  7. V. Hugo, Les Misérables, op. cit.

  8. See Dominique Laporte, History of Shit (trans. N. Benabid and R. el-Khoury), Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1993.

  9. See Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (trans. J. Riviere), London: The Hogarth Press 1930. Quoted in D. Laporte, History of Shit, op. cit., p.11.

  10. Georges Bataille, 'The Language of Flowers', Visons of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939

  11. See Cornell Woolrich, 'Death in the Air' (1936), Nightwebs, New York: Gollancz, 1973.

  12. Geoffrey Chaucer, 'The Miller's Tale', The Canterbury Tales, in Larry D. Benson (ed.), The Riverside Chaucer, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Quoted in Laura Kendrick, Animating the Letter, Columbus: Ohio State, 1999 and V.A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imaginary Narrative, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984.

  13. Carolyn Steedman, Dust, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001, p.22.

  14. D. Laporte, History of Shit, op. cit., p.8.