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
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