Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista

Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary

Chris Ofili’s The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Star

Mike Kelley’s Nostalgiac Depiction of the Innocence of Childhood

Work No. 83 — A protrusion from a wall

Work No. 115 — A doorstop fixed to a floor to let a door open only 45 degrees

Work No. 142 — A large piece of furniture partially obstructing a door

Half the air in a given space

Work No. 850 — Duveen Commission

Work No. 405 — Ships coming in




Sick shit happens:
everyday histories in
Martin Creed’s Body Docs

by James P. Hansen

“Nearly everyday, whether you like it or not, you make shit. Shit happens, and you cannot ignore it. Working is a matter of trying to come to terms with, to face up to, what comes out of you.”
— Martin Creed

A brief introduction

Vomiting and defecating have long been accessed as elements of address in modern and contemporary art, as well as art film.[1] [open endnotes in new window] The abundance of shit and vomit in art never manages to move the discourse completely away from being an attention-grabbing shock tactic. Moreover, the commonality of these corporeal functions in the history of modern and contemporary art does little to curb aghast spectatorial responses at their presence in supposed artworks. Nevertheless, there’s a longstanding tradition of vomit and shit in art across media:

  • fiction film — John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972); Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975)
  • sculpture — Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista (1961)
  • painting — Paul McCarthy’s Shit Face Painting (1974); Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1998), No Woman No Cry (1998), The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (1998), The Upper Room (2002), and others; Patrick Rowe’s Vomit Etch Series (2006-2007)
  • performance — Otto Muhl; McCarthy’s Class Fool; Mike Kelley’s Nostalgiac Depiction of the Innocence of Childhood (1990)[2]

This tradition establishes excrement as an integral element for artworks[3] and individual artists.[4] The discussion surrounding vomit and shit in art has long been centered around elements of transgression and, while this remains a factor encounter, vomit and shit may not be quite so filthy anymore. Taking into account the abundance of vomit videos, fecophilia, and scat porn online today, vomit and shit have moved from everyday private functions for citizens to quotidian practices in at least some modern media. Perhaps with this in mind, many of the artists listed above use vomit and shit as a means of investigating the nature of the body, memory, and art itself while they simultaneously question the historicity of transgressive traditions.

In this essay, I will explore two recent films, Work No. 610  (Sick Film) (2006) and Work No. 660 (Shit Film) (2006), from contemporary British artist Martin Creed, which directly confront the bodily processes of vomiting and defecation. Sick Film and Shit Film have been shown in various formats in both cinemas and galleries around the world. Recognizing the transgressive role that vomit and shit have played in the history of art, Creed’s films accentuate a recontextualization of vomit and feces as repetitive everyday processes. This approach allows for the films to function as documentaries of these bodily processes — I will call them body docs — which challenge the way we view the films as both documentaries and art works. Choosing individuals to be “the people being sick” and “person taking a shit” moves these films away from a hierarchical view of the artist as the lone creator of art and extends the creation of art into the everyday. I will argue that this mentality highlights the historical transparency of bodily processes, marking them as an individual creation but also an ongoing universal process. In affecting the way these bodily functions are understood as both individual and universal, Creed challenges the ways we have viewed and analyzed these processes in the past, and positions a new way for the spectator (and artist) to actively engage with our world, artworks, and representations of what our bodies create.

The everyday art of Martin Creed

I want to start by placing these films in the context of Martin Creed’s body of work. Creed is perhaps best known for his installations, most famously winning the Turner Prize in 2001 for Work No. 227 — The lights going on and off

This is an installation in which the lights go on and off in an empty gallery space every five seconds. Prior to that new-found stature, Creed had been working for over 15 years uniquely incorporating everyday objects and items into his difficult to define artworks. Known as a minimalist/post-minimalist/conceptual artist, and commonly associated with the Young British Artists school, Creed’s simple, sometimes baffling works incite from critics both vitriolic reactions decrying the state of the art world[5] and major praise. His early work often manipulates the space of a given room by fixing objects in obstructive ways. Some of the works in which he repositions everyday items into new contexts include

  • Work No. 83 — A protrusion from a wall (1993);
  • Work No. 115 — A doorstop fixed to a floor to let a door open only 45 degrees (1995);
  • Work No. 142 — A large piece of furniture partially obstructing a door (1996-2002); and
  • Half the air in a given space[6], in which inflated balloons fill half the space in a given room.

More recently, Creed has begun exploring the human body and its processes of movement, repetition, and creation. Work No. 850 — Duveen Commission featured athletes sprinting through Tate Britain’s central galleries every 30 seconds, all day, every day for four and a half months.

The cyclical nature of Work No. 850 echoes Creed’s concerns with music and composition. Unhappy with several of his early sculptures for lacking a “process,” Creed began experimenting with music. He used several mechanical systems of sounds for installations including

  • Work No. 97 — A metronome working at a moderate speed (1994),
  • Work No. 122 — Drum Machine (1995-2000), and
  • Work No. 223 — Three metronomes beating time, one quickly, one slowly, and one neither quickly nor slowly (1999).

He also formed a three-piece pop band named “Owada” with several friends. They worked on songs in which the process of making the music dictated the music itself, as well as the titles, such as “Blow and Suck” — a folk song, of sorts, in which a harmonica is played loudly.[7]  The “blow” and “suck” on the harmonic from the musician create the recorded sound and are represented further by the blunt title. Creed has continued working on music following the same principles with songs such as “I Like Things,” “I Can’t Move,” and “Fuck Off.”

Creed has recently taken his compositions a step further by writing his first orchestral score (Work No. 955) for a 2008 retrospective on his work at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England and by conceiving, composing, and choreographing a ballet (Work No. 1020) for the 2009 Frieze Fair as part of a season marking the centenary of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Work No. 955 is short piece written so that each instrument becomes equal. Each one plays the same note for the same amount of time in order of pitch. Work No. 1020 ascribes a certain musical note to each of ballet’s five major positions — the only five used in the ballet. Each dancer can only move forward, backward, or sideways — not diagonally. As Creed says, “in the rules of the game, they can only move like the knight of the chessboard.”  Comparing Work No. 1020 to the rest of his work, Creed states,

“In my work, in the years gone by, I've tried to make work that doesn't use extra materials. Like The lights going on and off, which just uses the gallery, as it is. So to me, trying to use the human body is one step further in trying to make work that doesn't add things to the world. It's not adding extra stuff, it's people.”[8]

It is this recent use of the human body that bring us to Creed’s films and videos. Sick Film and Shit Film are two of Creed’s earliest experiments with filmmaking, but important differences come to light if we also briefly consider his other moving image works. Creed’s earliest use of video came in 2005 with Work No. 405 — Ships coming in[9]. This video, incorporating two television sets stacked on top of one another, featured two video loops of the same length showing ships docking in a harbor. In general, the looped video is a predominant feature of the moving image in galleries. With Work No. 405, Creed follows this contemporary tradition while he continues his emphasis on spatial relationships and everyday activities. In the longshot featured in the video, the space of the sea looms even as the ships return. Though a ship returns and people are seen leaving the ship, this mundane routine combined with the video’s repetitive looping suggests a need to return from somewhere else.

The practice of recording daily routines has been prominent since the first movies were shot. The Lumière Brothers’ famous film Workers Leaving The Factory (1895) introduced an interest in recording the social by highlighting workers after a day’s work. Work No. 405 retains this same kind of everyday simplicity — a simplicity Creed’s work often addresses and complicates — while also expanding the frame to suggest something beyond the literal nature of the video. The ships do come in, just as the workers do leave the factory, yet the vision of the sea behind the ships stands as a reminder that although they do come in, they will also return to another place before coming in again. Work No. 405 suggests the complete and necessary cycle of returning from someplace before leaving and returning to the same place again. The video loop makes the cyclical pattern even more apparent — and mundane. Even the would-be majesty of the sea loses its impact when the process becomes so repetitive. So Creed, while relying on the relative simplicity of his video, reflects on the nature of everyday work in terms of spatial relations — here between the sea, the ship, and the dock. Yet, unlike Lumière, Creed mimics the repetitive and cyclical nature of work. Work No. 405, then, serves a similar purpose as his early music experiments where Creed is looking for a larger process within work itself. This collective process must be uncovered before the individual can be fully portrayed. Just as Creed’s installations serve as an institutional critique of the museum (the process) and the spectator’s role within it (the socialized individual), Work No. 405 witnesses the same negotiation from a distance. However, the socialized individual loses his/her specific identity in the process. This problem resonates in Work No. 405 and will be further complicated and altered in Sick Film and Shit Film.

Creed’s move to focus on individuals and, in particular, on the human body began in 2006 with his video installations of footage from the 35mm Sick Film.[10] Work No. 503 is the first of these variations. (You can view the work here:

Sick Film is about one minute long and features one young woman getting sick. The white cube space is clear before she enters. Her coughing is heard off-screen before she enters. As she walks to the center of the frame, she begins gagging herself and vomiting on the ground. She continues gagging for several “rounds” of vomit, which seem to increase in the amount of vomit. She scoots backward as the vomit gathers around her feet. She continues coughing and breathing heavily as she exits the frame on the same side from which she entered. Seen in a gallery, Work No. 503 loops back to the beginning with a clean white space where the woman (re)enters and vomits.

Work No. 503 is an individual piece of what makes up the whole of Work No. 610 — Sick Film. The early variations of Sick Film, such as Work No. 503, feature only one person getting sick and are displayed as looped videos. The one exception is Work No. 583, which features one person getting sick on 4 different televisions (stacked 2 x 2) at the same time (see image). However, this example still gives each person their own screen.


Sick Film and Shit Film Performer #2 Mark Tallowin:
The white cube is clear before the figure enters.

 Sick Film is 21 minutes in length and has ten different people getting sick one after another.[11] Creed says of this work,

“The cinema film is structured so that it has a narrative (the vomit gets more colourful and bigger in volume) and according to the amount of time it took each person between entering and vomiting.”[12]

Each person enters, vomits, and exits before an edit clears the screen of the vomit before another person enters to do their private business. There are six females and four males who vomit. Performer one (Jo Robertson — a young woman wearing a blue jeans skirt and black heels) attempts to purge herself while playing up to the camera. She stands in the middle of the frame hunched over. She snickers, drops to her knees, stands up, gags herself, dry-heaves, and giggles continuously for nearly three minutes before a small, barely visible amount of vomit emits. She says, “I can’t breathe” before spitting and quickly exiting the frame.

Performer two (Mark Tallowin — a young man wearing an unbuttoned flannel shirt, brown pants, and sneakers) walks to the middle of the frame holding his chest. He slightly leans over and burps several times. He spits on the floor before another quick belch and emitting a mid-sized amount of vomit, which spreads across the middle of the floor. He leans further over and emits a larger amount of dark red vomit. He slowly bends back up, coughing, spitting, rubbing his head, and shaking vomit off his hand. He dry-heaves and coughs several more times for almost 2:30 before walking down towards the camera and exiting. His “performance” of 3:55 in total length is the longest of any person getting sick in the film.

“Performers” 3-10 take far less time vomiting. Of the final seven people getting sick, the shortest performance lasts 43 seconds and the longest 2:18. The vomit comes much more quickly with much higher volume between performer 3 and 10.

Performer 3 is Robin Simpson — a tall, thin man who across the screen and back again before vomiting in two bursts — the first relatively small, the second quite large — before pacing around, spitting on the floor, and exiting.

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