Nearly 100 years after Marcel Duchamp unveiled his seminal work Fountain – a urinal signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt” — the bathroom has once again become a site for high art. On September 16, after a series of delays, Maurizio Cattelan unveiled his highly anticipated work, America (2016), on the fifth floor of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The work is comprised of a solid 18 karat gold toilet that is a custom cast replica of the other Kohler toilets in use at the museum. Unlike Duchamp’s urinal, this work is displayed in-situ in one of the single occupancy restrooms off the ramp of building’s spiraling rotunda, and is fully functional.
The plumbing fixture turned conceptual art piece marks Cattelan’s official return to the art world after he announced his retirement in 2011 during his Guggenheim retrospective “Maurizio Catalan: All.” Since its opening, visitors have flocked en masse to the museum with wait times going up to almost two hours on certain days. Each visitor is allowed a maximum of five minutes inside the gender-neutral restroom, dictated by a guard who stands outside of the room at all times and checks the work after each use. A guard is present with good reason — though no official comments have been made on the cost, speculations based on the massive weight of the object and the price of gold range from $2-3 million USD. The work is listed as courtesy of the artist’s New York rep, Marian Goodman Gallery, but was also funded by others including Galerie Perrotin in Paris and mega collector, Dasha Zhukova, who funded Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
I joined the queue to use America towards the end of the day and was informed I was the last person for the day allowed in line. A sign informed me my spot marked an approximate one hour point for waiting. Luckily for me, a confused tourist meekly backed out of the line, asking a docent why this line was so long and what exactly it was for. Unimpressed by the explanation, her two comrades also decided to leave. Though the piece is meant to be interacted with, its participatory nature has its drawbacks: not all of the museum guests follow the rules of engagement which include most importantly, don’t lift the 80-pound seat.
After hearing a loud thud, the line fell quiet; someone lifted the behemoth seat and let it slam down. “I just said don’t lift it!” bemoaned the guard positioned outside as she knocked on the door to scold the Irish tourist inside. By the time he came out more museum staff were outside as the guard reminded the man of her clearly stated instructions. The man glowed bright red as he dodged any engagement and muttered “let’s just go” as his wife apologized while he and his son made their way out. A coterie of conservators, guards, and other personnel came down and the remaining three guests in line, myself included, were informed the piece may be closed for the rest of the day. We held our breath, and our bladders, tensely as staff shuffled in and out inspecting the work. After a few test flushes and a cleaning with special non-abrasive medical wipes, we were told we would be able to use the work with minutes to spare before the museum closed for the evening.
“I just said don’t lift it!” bemoaned the guard positioned outside as she knocked on the door to scold the Irish tourist inside.
Finally, I was allowed to enter the squat, white restroom and locked the door behind me. I turned around and was struck immediately by the metallic reflection of the golden toilet. The contrast between the work and its surroundings was arresting. The brilliant gold color enveloped the stark room in which its situated and bathes its cramped walls in mirrored streaks. As I sat down on the shiny metal seat, which was not as cold as I had anticipated, I pondered the absurdity of the situation I found myself in. The irony was not lost on me that I was almost unable to experience America because of the hubris and ignorance of one entitled man.
Cattelan’s piece is not only about the toilet itself but the totality of its participatory experience. Rarely are museum goers invited to touch works of art, much less relieve themselves on one. The art world enfant terrible claims he wanted the piece to be a luxury object accessible to the public, but placing it within a private museum also creates barriers for entry. Price for admission while the museum installs its new show is $15 USD for adults but that price will almost double to $25 USD when its collection fully reopens. Though part of the idea was to take something normally reserved for the “one percent” and make it publicly available, the threshold for accessibility to private museums is often difficult to cross for those not already of a certain level of status and privilege.
The wall text outside boasts “Cattelan’s toilet offers a wink to the excesses of the art market” but it also winks at the excesses of the institution in which it is housed. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation — which operates the Guggenheim Museum in New York as well as its sister museums in Venice and Bilbao and its two future sites in Helsinki and Abu Dhabi — has assets valued at upwards of $170 million USD. However the Foundation became embroiled in controversy this past spring after its Board of Trustees ceased negotiations with artist-lead Gulf Labor Coalition. The organization was formed in 2011 in response to a damning report published by the Human Rights Watch outlining the myriad legal and ethical mistreatments of migrant laborers working to construct the museum’s lavish Saadiyat Island campus in Abu Dhabi.
More broadly, the piece highlights the excesses and financial inequalities that are plaguing the world in general and the United States specifically. America fashions an environment of artificial scarcity when its use value is equal to that of any other toilet. Rampant income inequality continues to polarize the American economy, making overt displays of extravagance and wealth like a solid gold toilet pointedly charged. The title especially helps to construct this context and provides a multiplicity of lenses through which to consider the work. For example, since 2009 Cattelan has collaborated with photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari on a whimsical biannual publication called Toilet Paper, with editions available for purchase in the museum’s gift shop.
Sitting on the lustrous toilet I wondered what the people criticizing Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem would think of the gesture of literally shitting on America. For some, the piece may provide little more than another #artselfie to post on Instagram, but it nonetheless raises questions about wealth, access and commodity fetishism. America comes to us during a time ridden with economic strife and social turmoil in the United States, and during an election year that is poised to set the tone of the nation in one of two diametrically different ways. Standing to flush the cold metal lever I took solace in humanity’s one great equalizer: everyone poops.
Maurizio Cattelan’s America is on view indefinitely at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.