Art for the One Percent, Now for Everyone…Yes, there’s a solid 18-karat gold toilet in America – but it’s not in one of Donald Trump’s opulent bathrooms. It is instead in a humble public restroom, to be used by the 99 percent of ordinary people. You can use it and so can I.
Its creator is famed Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, the art world’s provocateur, and this is his first work after almost 12 years. Needless to say it’s creating quite a sensation – crowds are lining up outside the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan to see this art installation which thumbs its nose at the chichi art world. Is a toilet- albeit gold – art and is it art when ordinary people are free to shut the door and interact with it, using it to relieve themselves? Is it art when it can be sat upon and flushed? Thousands seem to think so, as fueled by the media frenzy, masses wait patiently in line for a darshan of “the golden throne.”
The Darshan of the Gold Toilet
I too went to pay my respects and was stunned to see that the line stretched around the Guggenheim Museum. People were waiting, queued up for two to three hours just to visit the public bathroom. It says something about us all – ever hungry to be part of celebrity, opulence, wealth, to have the ultimate experience. I know how we all wait on line to see the Pope, the Queen and SRK – but here were we all, waiting for two hours on a bathroom queue to gaze upon the toilet -without even having the urge to go! If we really had to use the toilet, a two hour wait would have been just unbearable…On the occasion of this new installation, the Guggenheim has republished a revised edition of the catalogue Maurizio Cattelan: All, first published to accompany his 2011–12 retrospective at the museum. Reading this you get some sense of Cattelan, the man and the artist: “Hailed simultaneously as a provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet of our times, Maurizio Cattelan has created some of the most unforgettable images in recent contemporary art. His source materials range widely, from popular culture, history, and organized religion to a meditation on the self that is at once humorous and profound. Working in a vein that can be described as hyperrealist, Cattelan creates unsettlingly veristic sculptures that reveal contradictions at the core of today’s society. While bold and irreverent, the work is also deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power.”
Giving the Middle FingerCattelan, 55, seems to have lived an intriguing life in Padua, Italy, always expanding and pulling on the boundaries of what it means to be an artist and to create art. One of his most famous works is a giant middle finger right in the middle of a public square in Milan. Italians have not only accepted it but almost taken proud ownership of it.In an interview in interview on The Talks , he was asked, “Are you sometimes surprised with the things you are able to get away with? I mean, you built a giant middle finger out of marble and got it displayed in one of the main squares of Milan.” Cattelan replied, “I wouldn’t say surprised. To me it’s something necessary, something that’s missing. That is the reason why I’ve been doing it. With that sculpture the authorities approved the location and the mock-up of the sculpture without opposing. Initially it should have stayed there for just ten days. I don’t know how it happened, but they ended up asking me to donate the sculpture to the city for decades!” The Gold Toilet too has been installed indefinitely at the Guggenheim, a part of the daily lives of museum-goers. When they want to take a pee, they will just wander into the public bathroom, shut the door and use Cattelan’s masterpiece to relieve themselves! The 99 percent, the nobodies finally using freely and audaciously what would normally be intended for the one percent of the wealthiest. Trump and his gold-encrusted lifestyle come to mind. Talk about democracy!
Out-trumping Trump: Using the Solid Gold Toilet
Well, today I was going to out-trump Trump with my use of the solid gold toilet. I stood on line and when my turn came to use the restroom, I had to hand over my handbag to the guard (they don’t want anyone carting away bits and pieces of the gold fixtures) and went in. There, I was alone with this magnificent gold toilet which has been estimated by the Gothamist between $1,474,592 and $2,527,872. This precious heirloom is cleaned every 15 minutes with a special cloth.
It was intimidating but then I did what I had to do and pulled the flush. I idly thought of taking a selfie with this icon but chickened out. The line was huge outside and the guard had requested I keep my bathroom visit to 3 minutes, as scores were still waiting for their darshan.
“But I had never urinated (if you must know) on someone’s art, and it gave me pause, wrote Randy Kennedy in The New York Times, and I do agree with him and his assessment of the artwork. “As a formal matter, I’ll say that the sculpture really looks its best when in use, sparkling so much it’s almost too bright to look at, especially during the flush, which may be a new postmodern sublime.”
‘America’ is also a commentary on IndiaAlthough Cattelan’s work is titled ‘America’, viewing it let loose a whole stampede of thoughts in my mind. Gold, because it is rare, has immense value. Human lives, because there are just too many, have no value. One thinks of humanity’s endless riffraff struggling through alien territory, dying at sea, nameless, unmarked. Then there is a glittering gold toilet which draws so much adulation because of what it is and who made it. Certainly a throne for our world of mixed-up values, and Cattelan is surely bemused by the endless lines of worshippers.
A memory flashed in my mind of a morning train journey to Pune, and of seeing scores of villagers squatting on an adjacent rail track, their pants pulled down, answering the call of nature. No bathroom in their naseeb and yet the affluent in India had shimmering toilets, homes, cars and more. Another memory of magnificent new high-rises juxtaposed with shanties of tin and cardboard in Mumbai came to mind. Yes, to me Cattelan’s ‘America’ is about the 1 percent everywhere, the elite. It could be titled ‘India’ or ‘Russia’ or ‘China’ and still be on target. What is particularly pleasing – and revolutionary, even anarchic – is the way he’s opened up one of the assets of the 1 percent to the rest of the 99 percent in real time. Even kings and celebrities have the same primal urges as ordinary people.
“The new work makes available to the public an extravagant luxury product seemingly intended for the 1 percent,” observes Nancy Spector, chief curator of this exhibit. “Its participatory nature, in which viewers are invited to make use of the fixture individually and privately, allows for an experience of unprecedented intimacy with an artwork. Cattelan’s toilet offers a wink to the excesses of the art market, but also evokes the American dream of opportunity for all, its utility ultimately reminding us of the inescapable physical realities of our shared humanity.”
(C) Lavina Melwani
(This article was first published in Scroll.In)