7 October 2021
Waste not, want not.
By Neil Tidmarsh
“Sewage blights half of England’s main rivers” choked a gagging headline in The Times last Tuesday.
The charity Rivers Trust has just reported that over half of our waterways are “polluted with sewage pumped out by water companies”. Water UK, on behalf of those water companies, responded by pointing out that pollution by chemical / industrial emissions has fallen, but agreed that human emissions remain a problem. Only 14% of rivers have a “good” ecological status, a percentage unchanged in the last twelve years. The government target of even a modest 27% by 2027 is looking highly unrealistic. There are calls for new laws, new regulations, new systems to fight for “the safe recreational use of inland waterways in every region in England”. But of course it all depends on investment, like everything else. So where’s the money going to come from?
Well, here’s a suggestion. Can the effluent-rich water and sell it.
“What?” you scoff. “Like cans of coke or tins of baked beans? Sell tins of human waste? You couldn’t give it away!”
On the contrary. And I would suggest a starting price of at least £200 per can. Rising in time to £22,000. Or even to £185,000.
One hundred cans of human urine have just been sold for £200 each. They’re the product of Gavin Turk, the not-so-young-anymore Young British Artist. The YBAs have been metaphorically pissing about for the past thirty years[i], but now Mr Turk has been inspired to do it literally. He has another 230 cans of his wee for sale. Christmas is only a few months away. Fretting about presents already? Snap up one of those cans while the price is still only a mere £200. “I definitely feel like it is quite a cheap artwork” he says. “I would hope that it would go up in value.”
He’s following in the foetid footsteps of Piero Manzoni, the Italian artist who canned his own faeces in the 1960s to produce 90 tins of “Artist’s Shit” (Merda d’Artista). The Tate purchased one of them for £22,000 twenty years ago. Another sold for £185,000 more recently.
Water UK should get to work on this project straight away. A can of sewage-polluted river water would be superior to the competing products of Mr Turk and Mr Manzoni in four knock-out ways:
First. Mr Turk’s cans contain only urine, Mr Manzoni’s cans contain only faeces, but the Water UK’s cans would presumably contain both urine and faeces. In other words, they would be mixed–media works, and therefore more sophisticated, more interesting, more accomplished and more valuable (artistically and commercially) than the rival single-media works.
Second. Art by single artists is old hat, art by collectives is in, as the recently-announced short-list for the Turner Prize 2021 – which consists only of collectives – has made clear. The contents of Mr Turk’s cans are the product of only one individual; the contents of Mr Manzoni’s cans are the product of only one individual; but the sewage in our rivers is the product of many individuals, a truly collective effort.
Third. The 2021 Turner Prize shortlist also stresses that, today, it isn’t enough for a work of art to be just an aesthetic artefact or an embodied concept; even more importantly, it must also be a working piece of social activism. Water UK’s cans – helping to finance the cleaning up of our rivers and publicising the dangers of pollution, the horrors of environmental degradation and the parlous state of the world’s ecology – would be an immensely powerful piece of social activism.
Fourth. The humble tin-can’s moment in the sun has finally arrived, just in time for Water UK to bask in its rays. The French company Cacolac has been producing cans of a milk chocolate drink for decades; but for the last ten years it has been producing cans of wine on the quiet. Wine in cans rather than in bottles has always been regarded as an abomination by the French, so Cacolac kept its side-line secret, selling only to export markets such as the USA. Always, that is, until now; a new survey has just shown that almost 50% of French drinkers aged 18 to 24 would be keen to imbibe canned wine (declining to 20% of over 55’s). So Cacolac is now coming out into the open with its vinous products, and is planning a big new factory near Bordeaux and hoping to increase its yearly output from nine million cans of wine to forty million.
Water UK should get in touch with Cacolac. The French company, with its growing capacity, might be looking for a new side-line. It could be a perfect match. As long as the cans’ labels don’t get mixed up.
[i] Gavin Turk’s graduation exhibition at the Royal College of Art famously consisted simply of a ‘Borough of Kensington’ commemorative blue plaque declaring “Gavin Turk, Sculptor, worked here 1989-1991”, a small artefact of huge audacity which resulted in the RCA refusing to give him his postgraduate degree. The RCA nevertheless presented him with the Jack Goldhill sculpture prize ten years later for his work ‘Bag’ – a bulging black plastic refuse sack. But I’m not scoffing. His simple giant ‘Nail’ is magnificent, standing outside the One New Change shopping centre in the City, right opposite St Paul’s cathedral, a reminder of the Crucifixion sited slap-bang between God and Mammon. And there’s something magical and profound about his golden ‘Cod and chips to take away’, too.
Cover page photo: PPD (Pixnio)