Feed Me!

A machine eats, digests, and—well, you know—all in the name of art. It's amazing, but it ain't pretty.

Photographs by John B. Carnett
Photographs by John B. Carnett

Odds are, you don't think about your digestive system much, except when it demands attention. But you're not likely ever to take your innards for granted again after you see a current exhibit at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art. It's an in-your-face $200,000 simulation of the human digestive tract by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. Called Cloaca (Latin for sewer), it grinds up restaurant meals and then digests them for 22 hours, eventually depositing a sausage of waste on a conveyor belt. Delvoye developed the machine with scientists at the University of Antwerp-and numerous plumbers. "I realized that it didn't have to look like a stomach," he says. "Once you imagine an abstraction, you can translate it into mechanical devices."

Cloaca's mouth is a huge plastic funnel that delivers food and water twice a day to a set of glass chambers so you can see each gruesome step during the digestive process. Electronic sensors monitor each chamber and signal a series of electric pumps to keep the food moving along. (The installation is 33 feet long.) The machine keeps the food at a constant 98.6