The Guggenheim’s Shocking New Gold Toilet Exhibit by James Cordelaine
Beginning today visitors to New York City’s Guggenheim Museum will have quite a shock in store for them. As reported in the New Yorker, when art lovers work their way up the museum’s spiral walkway and decide to enter the restroom near the top, they will be greeted, or confronted, depending on your outlook, by a solid-gold toilet. Yes, you read it right – gold toilet, complete with gold seat, gold flushing mechanism and gold tank.
Even though the newest exhibit is hardly a secret, my guess is visitors will still feel – even enjoy – the shock of this most precious and lauded of metals being used in such a fashion. But what should we make of it? Is this museum director Richard Armstrong’s idea of a joke? Are he and the Guggenheim’s board somehow offering support to the beliefs of paper traders eight miles away on Wall Street – those who would consign gold to the city’s sewers?
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Not really; the plumbing unit was fashioned by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, renowned for his biting and satirical work. Among other works, Cattelan is known for La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), which depicts Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteorite, and HIM, a sculpture of Hitler kneeling in prayer in a courtyard in Poland’s former Warsaw Ghetto.
Of course artists have long enjoyed their dual role as provocateurs, tweaking what society views as “beautiful” and adding their unique commentary. Picasso’s 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon reveals prostitutes flaunting their sexuality in a Barcelona brothel. Franco-American Marcel Duchamp, leading light of the Surrealist, Dadaist, Cubist and Futurist art movements, anticipated Cattelan’s Guggenheim toilet by ninety-nine years with his own exhibition of a urinal under the auspices of New York’s Society of Independent Artists.
Yes, Mona Lisa’s smile is subtle and arresting. But artists since Da Vinci have dared to wander frequently from the Louvre to the loo. What’s especially provocative about Cattelan’s work, though, is, unlike Duchamp’s avante-garde 1917 urinal, his sculpture doubles as a completely usable facility.
If this strikes you as tacky, or even yucky, Nathan Otterson, the Guggenheim’s conservator of objects, has already anticipated any sanitary problems:
“…Someone from our regular cleaning staff will come by every fifteen minutes, and they’ll use special wipes, like medical wipes, that don’t have any fragrance or color or oxidizers. And we have a steam cleaner that we’ll use periodically. The color is going to change, and we’ll probably be brightening the toilet up with polish along the way.”
And for those of you worried about possible theft before you manage to work your way to New York to view Cattelan’s work, you can feel confident and secure. Right outside his art exhibit qua lavatory, there’ll be a full-time armed guard.
After all, regardless of its value as art, that’s a large quantity of gold.