It’s easy to mistake New York’s newest site-specific artwork for a common toilet.
That would be because Maurizio Cattelan’s “America” looks and functions exactly like a commode, save for the fact that it’s cast in solid gold. Yes, if you so wish, you can defecate into Cattelan’s luxury appliance, fulfilling your morose dream to shit on a piece of contemporary art.
You’ll just have to pay the compulsory $15 admission fee at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to do so.
”America” ― henceforth referred to as The Toilet ― sits in one of the Guggenheim’s actual restrooms, awaiting patrons in dire need of a pee. Eager users will find a security guard posted outside the public space, making sure Cattalan’s work is kept clean and free of enthusiastic tributes to its splendor vandalism.
According to Fox News, the golden throne will require cleaning crews to use medical wipes to clean The Toilet after each user, regularly steaming and polishing it to keep the 18-karat glimmer in check.
But what are we actually to make of what appears to be a simple golden toilet masquerading as art?
The Toilet functions as an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” that other famous artsy receptacle ― a ready-made sculpture that looked just like a urinal, because it was one. According to the Guggenheim, The Toilet also alludes to Piero Manzoni’s “Artist’s Shit (1961),” for which Manzoni supposedly sold his own excrement for a cost equivalent to its own weight in gold. (Cans of his excrement ended up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Tate museum in London.)
Other artists have dabbled in the realm where human waste meets art before Cattalan. Tobias “Tobi” Wong created a pill that would allegedly turn a wealth-loving individual’s feces into sparkling packages. And, of course, who can forget “Piss Christ,” a 1987 photograph that depicted a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of artist Andre Serrano’s own urine.
Cattelan was born to a working class family in Padua, Italy, in 1960, and is known for making playful sculptures that illicit an immediate “WTF?” His “La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour)” shows the figure of Pope John Paul II lying on the ground after having been struck by a meteorite.
His Toilet, a touch less absurd than the sci-fi sculpture of a pope, is meant to provoke much more than a satisfied trip to the loo. According to The Guggenheim:
The new work makes available to the public an extravagant luxury product seemingly intended for the one percent. 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.
The artist himself has a similarly serious explanation:
“There’s the risk that people will think of it as a joke, maybe, but I don’t see it as a joke,” he explained to The New York Times. “I was born in a [low-income] condition where I was — how do you say? — forced to think about that. It’s not my job to tell people what a work means. But I think people might see meaning in this piece.”
On the one hand, it’s hard not to see The Toilet as an opportunity for those frustrated with the state of contemporary art ― It’s indulgent! It’s arbitrary! It doesn’t reflect the thoughts or cares of the common people! ― to feel validated in their beliefs. Plus, The Toilet allows these dissenters to come face-to-face with their enemy and perform one of the most triumphant acts in its presence: taking a dump in its face.
And perhaps Cattalan is aware of the allure. Maybe he’s tempting the loudest decriers, luring them into the confines of an art museum to gawk at the thing they hate most. “Gotcha!” Cattalan could say. Because in the process, he’s brought reluctant new patrons to a space filled with objects beyond a gaping gold toilet. Maybe they won’t like “America,” but what about art from the Middle East and North Africa, or an exhibition dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright?
As The New York Times has already pointed out, The Toilet seems especially relevant today, when a presidential candidate with a penchant for gold-plated decor continues to campaign for dangerous immigration reform and an incomplete maternity leave policy.
If you think a golden toilet in the middle of the Guggenheim is a ridiculous spectacle, what do you make of Donald Trump?