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London gallery exhibits slabs of human excrement

An artist is going to surprise Londoners with the wretched labor of one of India's lowest castes - by filling an art gallery with 21 big blocks of human excrement.

The monoliths are the brainchild of Santiago Sierra, whose previous work includes pumping a disused German synagogue full of poisonous car exhaust and an attempt to write the word "Submission" in giant, flaming letters near the U.S.-Mexican border.

The Spanish-born artist's curator at the Lisson Gallery, Elena Crippa, said his intention was to confront audiences with the horror of the scavengers, the so-called untouchables who have traditionally cleaned private toilets and outhouses in India.

The human waste used in the exhibit was gathered from the Indian cities of Delhi and Jaipur by volunteers working for Sulabh International, a human rights organization devoted to helping improve the lives of scavengers. The muck was left to sit for three years before being mixed with plastic, molded into man-sized blocks and shipped to Britain, by which point, Crippa said, it was the sanitary equivalent of dirt.

Sierra's work often seems intended to incite disgust or outrage. Past stunts have included spraying workers with toxic polyurethane foam or paying drug-addicted prostitutes for the right to tattoo lines on their backs.

A catalog distributed by the gallery suggested the slabs of excrement were meant to shock by bringing the scavengers' work "too close for comfort."

"As long as exploitation remains on the other side of the glass, we can quietly rest our heads on our pillows, clutching a fair trade chocolate bar in our fist," it said.

Art from excrement has a long pedigree. In 1961 Italian Piero Manzoni produced 90 cans of "Artist's (Poop)," each labeled as containing 30 grams (one ounce) of "freshly preserved" material.

In 1999, British artist Chris Ofili's rendition of the Virgin Mary on a canvas spattered with elephant dung raised the ire of then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Sierra's work is on a different scale. His 21 dark, crackled (and odorless) monuments are lined up like headstones. Although their power seems muted in the gallery's harsh white space, visitors interviewed still seemed impressed, if not exactly shocked, by Sierra's choice of material.

"I don't think it's the shock factor, that's not what this is about," said Claire Poulter, a 19-year-old art student from London. "It's about the fact that it was human made in both senses of the word."

London's Evening Standard was unimpressed by Sierra's fecal molds, saying his work was beginning to lose its ability to shock.

"Remove the human element and not only does his work not pack a punch, it's also losing its ability to surprise: increasingly, viewers are confronted by a case of diminishing returns," the paper said.

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