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.
The gold toilet has been created by the famed Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, provocateur of the art world. This is Cattelan’s first work after nearly 12 years, and needless to say, it’s creating quite a sensation. Crowds are lining up outside the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan to see the art installation that thumbs its nose at the posh art world.
Is a toilet – even a gold toilet – art, and is it still art when ordinary people are free to shut the door and interact with it: sit on it, relieve themselves, and flush? Thousands seem to think so, or perhaps fuelled by media frenzy, wait patiently in line for a visit to "the golden throne".
I too went to pay my respects, and was stunned to see a line that 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 – ever hungry to be part of celebrity, opulence, wealth, to have the ultimate experience, any ultimate experience. True, we wait in line to see the Pope, the Queen and Shah Rukh Khan – but here we were, waiting for two hours in a bathroom queue to gaze upon a toilet – some of us, without even the urge to really use it. 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, which was first published to accompany his 2011-'12 retrospective at the museum. Reading it, 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.”
Cattelan, 55, has 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. In an interview on The Talks, an online magazine, he was asked about one of his most famous works, a giant middle finger right in the middle of a public square in Milan, so popular that Italians have not only accepted it but almost taken proud ownership of it.
“Are you sometimes surprised with the things you are able to get away with?” the interviewer asked.
“I wouldn’t say surprised,” Cattelan said. “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, will remain at the Guggenheim indefinitely, a daily part of the museum experience for visitors. Anyone can wander into the public bathroom, shut the door and use Cattelan’s masterpiece to relieve themselves. The 99 percent, the nobodies will finally be 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.
I stood in line, and when it was my turn to use the restroom, I had to hand my handbag to the guard (they don’t want anyone carting away bits and pieces of the gold fixtures) before I went in.
There I was, alone with this magnificent gold toilet, estimated by the New York-centric website Gothamist to be worth between $1,474,592 and $2,527,872. The precious heirloom is cleaned every 15 minutes with a special cloth.
It was intimidating, but I finished my business and pulled the flush. I thought about taking a selfie with the icon, but chickened out – the queue outside was long, and the guard had requested I wind up my bathroom visit within three minutes. Hundreds were still waiting for their turn.
“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. “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.”
Cattelan’s work is titled America, but viewing it up close set off a storm of thoughts in my mind. Gold, because it is rare, has immense value. Human lives, because there are just too many, appear to have none. 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. A throne fit for our world of mixed-up values – Cattelan is surely bemused by the endless lines of worshippers.
A memory flashed in my mind, of a morning train journey to Pune, and seeing scores of villagers squatting on an adjacent rail track, their pants pulled down, answering the call of nature. Another memory, of magnificent new high-rises in Mumbai, juxtaposed with shanties of tin and cardboard.
Cattelan’s America is about the one percent everywhere, the elite. It could be titled India or Russia or China and still be on the money. What is particularly pleasing, and revolutionary, even anarchic – is the way he has opened up one of the assets of the one 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 one percent,” observed 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.”
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. She blogs at Lassi with Lavina and tweets @lavinamelwani.