Often described as a provocateur, prankster and tragic poet of our times, Maurizio Cattelan has loudly announced his retirement from art in 2011. By installing an 18-karat solid gold toilet in the Guggenheim Museum in 2016, the artist has officially emerged from his self-imposed retirement, in style. Titled America, the ongoing project has taken up residence in a standard pre-existing restroom on the museum’s fifth-floor ramp, allowing the visitors to use the toilet in much the same way as they would use a normal one. Working in a vein that can be described as hyperrealist, Cattelan has created some of the most unforgettable images in recent contemporary art. Sourcing materials from popular culture, history, organized religion or a meditation on the self, his at once humorous and profound sculptures reveal many contradictions at the core of today’s society. Having no formal art training, Cattelan considers himself an “art worker” rather than an artist, which speaks about his propensity for challenging socially ingrained norms and hierarchies. Often uniting humor and the macabre in his practice, he is seen by many as one of Duchamp’s greatest contemporary heirs. With this latest provocative piece, one cannot help but make these parallels. For those who feel that contemporary art often seems like a big hoax where the audience is getting played, the old question “Is it art?” seems legit. “There’s the risk that people will think of it as a joke," Cattelan told the New York Times. "Maybe, but I don’t see it as a joke.”
Made out of solid gold, Cattelan’s toilet was created to the exact dimensions of the Guggenheim’s already existing ones. The museum has previously shipped two of their toilets to Italy, where the artist cast the golden toilet in several parts before welding it together. The piece was installed by a “very professional” plumber, as the museum officials explain, who was very excited by the project. Installed in an already existing restroom indefinitely, the toilet is available to all museum visitors as any other one. Yet, one visitor is allowed inside the stall at a time, for no more than five minutes. Cattelan describes the piece as “1% art for the 99%”. Indeed, this extravagant luxury product that us seemingly available to only 1% is very welcoming and inviting for anyone to use. In this way, it seems that the “ordinary” people have been given an unprecedented access to something of unquestionable value. At the same time, the piece raises many questions regarding the exclusivity in the art world and in museums in particular. In a museum environment where visitors are repeatedly being told not to touch, this piece is participatory in nature, allowing the audience to have an unprecedented intimacy with a work of art, individually and privately. At the same time, the piece ultimately reminds us of the inescapable physical realities of our shared humanity. Emphasizing its democratic appeal, Cattelan explains: “Whatever you eat, a two-hundred-dollar lunch or a two-dollar hot dog, the results are the same, toilet-wise.” Besides a sculptural quality, the piece also has a performative one, since each visit to the golden loo can be interpreted as a mini-performance by the audience. As Cattelan explains, how people deal with the work is “part of the game”.
Cattelan’s inspiration for America seems to spring from a variety of sources. He has become intrigued with toilets as objects, and has amassed a substantial compendium of photos, gathered online, that illustrate the wide-ranging “variations of the vessels.” On the other hand, the legacy of Duchamp’s groundbreaking readymade Fountain, which marks its centennial next year, seems obvious. As for the provocative title, it references the American dream and boundless opportunity for all, “at the most optimistic end of the spectrum”. There is also another political layer in the piece. As Guggenheim explains, the aesthetics of this “throne” recalls “nothing so much as the gilded excess of Trump’s real-estate ventures and private residencies”. While Cattelan agrees that he could hardly have known about the rise of Trump when he conceived of the piece, he said that, “it was probably in the air.” He added that the Trump connection is, “another layer, but it shouldn’t be the only one.” Commenting on the title, Cattelan noted that it “came after [the work], and it was a matter of trying to deconstruct the object”, adding that together, the piece and the title have a meaning. Yet, the he prefers to allow the audience to interpret the work, inviting them to spend some time in America and ponder the meaning.
Cattelan’s interactive exhibit attracted many visitors who have been spending two hours in line waiting to use the toilet. The fact that we are so easily duped into standing in line for so long for a chance to sit on gold, and in most cases make selfies of the act and post it online, raises important questions about the nature of luxury and its excess, our love of shiny objects and income inequality. Everyone who makes use of this public facility immediately participates in the artist’s none too subtle comment on the obscene wealth of the art world and the wider society beyond. A work of art that speaks quite dramatically about its own value, the gold toilet delivers a scatological statement on the absurd astronomical prices that collectors pay for art today, making visible the excess and inequality that scar our society. Contemporary art has become an investment for the 1% and the entertainment for everybody else. The art market has become a perfect and monstrous image of the distorted economics of the 21st-century capitalism.
Cattelan’s piece engages with a whole history of artists that involve urination or feces in their work. One of the pioneering pieces was Artist’s Shit from 1961 by Piero Manzoni consisting of 90 tin cans, each filled with 30 grams of feces, that served as an act of defiant mockery of the art world, artists, and art criticism. Andy Warhol also experimented with urine in the production of his famous series of Oxidation Paintings. A novel step of artistic experimentation, these works are positioned between the discourses dealing with social divisions, artistic experimentation with the body, abstract art, and finally eroticism. There is also David Hammons taking a whiz on Richard Serra’s Titled Arc, and Andres Serrano’s infamous piece Piss Christ.
The gold toilet presents its share of maintenance challenges. After doing studies on the material, Guggenheim has changed the cleaning materials they use normally. Someone from their regular cleaning staff comes by every fifteen minutes and uses special wipes that don’t have any fragrance, color or oxidizers. Yet, it remains to be seen if the continuous contact with urine will alter the piece in any way. Probably won’t. After all, alchemists have spent so much time trying to extract gold from urine, believing it contains the necessary magical substance.
Featured image: America, the exhibition poster (detail), via forbes.org