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Toilets in Modern Art

by Angelique van Engelen



Travelers tend to frequently take the cleanliness of toilets as indicative of how civilised a country might be. Modern artists pretty much do the same thing. Defining a "threshold of civilization" by means of a toilet pot is however by no means simple. Neither is it likely to lead to a conclusive, once and for all outcome. On the contrary. When we are faced with a toilet pot as the focal point for debate, arguments rich of historic content emerge. Arguments that we realise we digested somehow only as and when we enter into the debate.

The first toilet to make its way into the art world was pushed to its rightful place by means of a trick, which is, if you think about it, the only way to do it. Toilets are embarrassing, not shocking. If an artist manages to outshock the embarrassment he’s likely succeeded in getting the specator to the point where he is transferring his emotions to the spectator’s mind, not merely associations of excrement. The spectator would never make this adjustment if he wasn’t somehow confronted however. So in 1917, Marcel Duchamp, stagemanaged a necessary coup both on the public and the art world itself when he, under the pseudonym "Richard Mutt", purchased a porcelyn urinal, scribbled, or rather ‘splashed’ the pseudonym on it, placed it on a pedestal and entered it as a sculpture in an exhibition organized by the New York Society of Independent Artists. The piece was rejected by the jury without discussion as ‘no work of art by any definition’.

It took a few decades, but this act was eventually confirmed as the birth of concept art, even though the artist might have never meant anything more than to show what art had become. He resigned himself to doing nothing. Many of his ‘ready made’ art objects have been stolen or destroyed and resistence in society to anything Duchamp was seizeably big. It was only until the 1960s -since the rise of the Concept Art movement- that the concept of ready made art became an accepted art form.
In the magazine ‘The Blind Man’, Duchamp defended his toilet on the basis of him chosing an ordinary article of life, and placing it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new title and point of view. Creating a new thought for that object made it into art. “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose,” Duchamp argued.

At this present day the debate has evolved some more and now there’s regular debate about whether art is actually not so valid if it doesn’t boast at least some degree of placid vulgarity. The Russians Ilya and Emilia Kabakov might offer some ideas. These two Russians are the undoubted king and queen of out-of-all-proportion installation art that deals with the bleak side of Russian everyday life. Many of their works are represented in the collections of many of the world's major museums. In 1992, they too created a toilet work. ‘The Toilet in the Corner’ is an exact replica of a Soviet toilet provincial style for an exhibition in Germany’s Kassel, named Documenta. The massive installation was built outside the exhibition building in the German city just like they would have been in provincial Soviet Russia. The toilet marked an important point in the Kabakovs’ careers, who had lived outside Russia for a number of years when they made the toilet installation.

The work was inspired by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which to the artists minds demanded an embracing of the genre ‘total installation’. This is the first work in which Ilya Kabakov encompassed an entire range of personal memories and reproduced them. His toilet shows shabby walls of white lime, covered by obscene graffiti in which toilets without any doors are placed. They epitomize the Russian idea of civilisation even more because they were communal, just like ordinary people's residences. People believe that in exile, Ilya Kabakov's work has become more unified and total.

Kabakov and his wife created more than 200 installations in a number of different countries. They are concept artists closely associated with the Russian NOMA group and steer clear of producing pop art, a strong contemporary art movement in Russia. Kabakov does not want his work to look as if it could be included in an advertisement. He has chosen to focus on the ordinary everyday life in an old fashioned effort to chronicle its bleakness. “Too banal and insignificant to be recorded anywhere else, and made taboo not because of their potential political explosiveness, but because of their sheer ordinariness, their all-too-human scale”, as one writer puts it. The Toilet in the Corner is now on permanent display in the State Hermitage.

One Belgian, Jan de Pooter, also more or less a contemporary concept artist, is also driven by the urge to document. He has made an inventory of the collapsing public urinals of his home town Antwerp. He also made a portable urinal and christened it "pisse-partout". It is a portable device that allows one to have a pee at any place in complete serenity... In creating his ‘urinal art’, De Pooter isn’t the first to draw public attention to the public conveniences in the city. They even derive their official name "Vespassiennes" from the Roman emperor Vespacianus who lived in 68 AD. On this ruler’s list levying taxes on public toilets throughout his empire came after building the Colloseum, ending Nero's misgovernment and persecuting the Jews. When he got complaints about it he used the famous words: (pecunia) non olet! Money does not smell. Which was rather a civilized thing for the time.

About the Author

Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She writes for www.contentClix.com and also contributes to a blog writing ring http://clixyPlays.blogspot.com

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