why toilet humour is no laughing matter
Ahead of Toilet Humour, a one-night exhibition taking place tonight at Doomed Gallery in Dalston, curator Antonia Marsh discusses how twenty-three artists are demonstrating the complexities of a space that in its quotidian familiarity, boasts a unique...
The first time I encountered "shit-art" was at a Gilbert and George retrospective at Tate Modern in 2007. In one early photograph by the duo, both artists grin at the camera with "Gilbert the Shit" and "George the Cunt" emblazoned across their respective chests in plastic lettering. This soon became my birthday card of choice to give friends, and I unsuccessfully feigned originality each time. Aside from this infamous double self-portrait, I distinctly remember entering into one room in particular, that was absolutely chock-full of shit. Giant droppings flew through the sky with Gilbert, or George, or both, riding them like bucking broncos. Enormous turd-patterns emblazoned the skies as well as the foregrounds of their threatening compositions. I had entered a world where nudity and faeces collide in an explosion of colour and utter confusion on my classically-educated teenage part. What I had been presented with was an entire series of photo tableaux from 1994 entitled The Naked Shit Pictures.
Despite my initial shock, which I am convinced was fuelled by the apparent indifference of everyone else at the exhibition, I soon discovered that artists had been utilising their excrement in their work, or if not, at least alluding to it, by the late 1970s. Vito Acconci's infamous Seedbed performance at Sonnabend Gallery NYC in 1972, for example, saw the artist lay beneath a ramp continuously masturbating as his audience walked above him, of course fully aware of his perverse activity. Equally disturbing, the vile and debauched mess Paul McCarthy makes with various kitchen condiments, cream and raw sausage meat, dressed in his blonde wig and not much more at bathtime in Tubbing (1975), never ceases to distress in its violent frankness. Indeed, copious artists have recycled their own waste for materials. In 1987, drenched in a governmental funding scandal and to the disgust and outrage of the church, Andres Serrano unleashed Piss Christ, a photograph of a small plastic Christ-crucified drowning in a glass of his own urine, which would since consistently incite vandalism by various offended parties.
Shortly thereafter in the early 1990s, Tom Friedman didn't quite smear a pedestal with his own shit but delicately sculpted a tiny sphere of his merchandise into a shape more "palatable" to a gallery audience. But why this apelike fascination with our own faecal product? In her 1978 text, The History of Shit, Dominique Laporte argues that humanity, especially in capitalist society, maintains an innate capacity to transform waste into value. Just as Gilbert and George realised with their printed droppings, as soon as a great big stinking pile of shit appears in a gallery space, it obtains worth. Shit literally turns into cash.
At Toilet Humour, a one-night exhibition taking place tonight at Doomed Gallery in Dalston, twenty-three artists will infiltrate the gallery space with a stench of their own, in an indecorous cornucopia of noxious material. Through a mix of commissioned and existing work, artists engage with bodily excretions to varying degrees. Wrestling with this troubled concept of the monetary value of art versus effort, while insisting "There's a lot of shite out there!" painter Joe Sweeney emblazons the space with a giant print of the artist's urine sample, hand-coloured in piss-yellow and titled A lot of people would pay good money for this. Caught short accompanies the print, and consists of a clump of individual signed receipts to be stored in a collector's wallet and held onto until a moment stuck on the bog in dire straits. In trademark deadpan style, Sweeney encourages his collectors to wipe their arses with his art, because indeed "Desperate times call for desperate measures." Sweeney's gesture recalls the most infamous sculptural confrontation with the excretion of an artist and its relative economic leverage. In 1965, prior to any of the performative melodrama we have already encountered, Piero Manzoni released Artist's Shit, a sealed tin typically used to package food, complete with a label laying claim that its contents were 30 grams of his own faeces. When sold, the price of the sculpture was aligned with the current market value of the price of the same weight in gold at the time. In a Midas-esque move, Manzoni literally turns his shit into gold, regardless as to whether the contents of his product belie their label or not.
With a similar nod to Manzoni, spelling out "I Love You," Tim Noble and Scarlett Carlos Clarke present painted casts of the latter's dried stools. Noble insists, "We are all slightly fascinated by scatological thoughts… I think it takes a special relationship to cast ones loved ones poo, once you have done it you have crossed a line, a unique understanding develops." Other assorted interpretations of faecal matter fill the gallery with a cacophony of turds. Madeleine von Froomer's uncanny brown vinyl droppings pepper the gallery space, while Kate Falcone presents three pink pearlescent poops, the kitschy excretions of some sort of teenage girl-monster coated in sticky resin and sprinkles of glitter. Rebecca Storm's photographs of menstrual blood are fashioned into jelly and elegantly presented as if for teatime. An atmosphere of quiet smugness pervades, while displaying "shit-art" in a gallery might provide some level of depraved catharsis for an artist, ultimately a consciousness of submitting the viewer to approaching a literal "pile of crap" as fine art must be all but satisfying.
Alongside these assorted interpretations of shit-as-art, Toilet Humour will examine the capacity for the bathroom, public or private, to act as an unusual arena for a multitude of human activities that reach far beyond its fundamental functions. An innately contradictory space where we both defecate and bathe, daily bathroom rituals unearth a multitude of uncomfortable binaries. We get wet, we dry off, we go in dirty, we clean up, we start pure and end impure. No wonder this deceptively basic space has given rise to a wealth of unreserved artistic responses, probably since Marcel Duchamp first plopped a urinal onto a plinth in 1917 and called it art.
The bathroom equally represents the only space in contemporary Western society to still maintain gender separation rules. In 2006, Jonathan Horowitz inscribed "Piss" and "Shit" onto two toilet stalls at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, thus removing gender divisions and instead distinguishing each space from one another by type of bodily excretion. Certain artworks at Toilet Humour submit specific reminders that most bathrooms represent gendered spaces, and many of their visual stimuli might be very familiar to men, but not to women, and vice-versa. This equally goes for the behavioural tropes and traditions that occur within their cavernous walls. By contrast, Claire Christerson's zine presents her ongoing excrement photo-stream with Alexandra Marzella. As if some sort of Feminist memento-mori, these four repugnant images challenge gender associations that come with the bathroom: regardless of our sex, our shit stinks just the same.
In a brazen new video made for Toilet Humour, as if thinking aloud while relieving herself, Alexandra Marzella embarks on a tongue-in-cheek contemplation of her own work. Whilst gently cavorting around a softly-lit toilet, her voice softly narrates a constructed stream-of-consciousness. Touching on the performativity of bathroom rituals while challenging some of the more aggressive works in the show, this video describes the peacefulness and potential for contemplative thought that the bathroom can invoke. Marzella confesses, "It's a reflection. Considering making an artwork in the bathroom made me look inward at myself and my practice. I'm having an inner dialogue. It's a tiny excerpt of the shit-ton of stuff I can think of just sitting on a toilet." Near the close of the video, Marzella references the stalwart Feminist performance of the 1970s, Carolee Schneemann's Interior Scroll(1975) where she eagerly pulls a scroll she reads from, out of her vagina. As such, for Marzella as for Schneemann, the female genitalia becomes not just creator but art-maker.
Whether sex and love, highs and lows or epiphanies and intimacies: Toilet Humour presents an array of inherently concealed behaviour. Such a revelatory display reasserts the privacy of the loo precisely in divulging its secrets. Returning his image to the precise location in which it was initially captured, Dan Boulton turns the lens onto himself, peeking just into the frame of the image to face his own reflection. Both Indigo Lewin and Miyako Bellizzi's candid images of girls in the bathroom display an unrivalled degree of intimacy shared between female photographer and female subject, as Marcel Castenmiller's melancholic photographs, while large in scale, voyeuristically present through-the-keyhole views of past lovers. For Castenmiller, "The bathroom is a sanctuary. Growing up in the suburbs, a room with a door that locks can become such an intimate space. Even when nobody was home, being in the bathroom with the door locked felt safe. When you add a person to that it becomes a shared secret space." In making the personal public, this familiar yet brutal transgression of private spaces forces the responsibility of the artist into consideration. Who's choice is it to display these images in the public realm? It remains unlikely that Lily Bertrand-Webb asked the permission of her hound if she could photograph him taking care of business in the park.
Where some artists delve into the darkness of private spaces, others consider and chronicle the peculiarities associated with the public bathroom. Reminiscent of Wolfgang Tillmans' ghostly images of bathroom interiors that trace his travels from the 1990s to the present, Zack Robinson's poem It's just another toilet leads the viewer along a trail of thought as he moves through the pub into the Gents and back out again. Not dissimilar to the visual storytelling mechanisms used by Lisa Signorini in her delicate cartoons, seemingly dissociated sketches lead the viewer through a surreal dream-sequence set in various disturbing public restrooms.
A handful of works veer towards more esoteric engagements with the pisser. Tom Beard's morbid depiction of a goldfish in its bowl-away-from-bowl and Rory DCS' Golden Showerz towels cheekily repurpose our understanding of the bathroom and its relative accoutrements. Alongside a life-size condom machine canvas, Kingsley Ifill's silkscreen painting utilises the aptly-named, comic branding of a LifeSize condom wrapper, ballooning its scale and alluding to a giant penis waiting to be sheathed.
Alongside dirty cartoons from Jack Ridley III that have covered the slimy walls of filthy cubicles in Downtown NYC bars and a photograph of shit-talk graffiti (no pun intended) ornamenting a toilet lid from Matt Martin, the exhibition will present an assortment of artworks that employ off-colour humour as a specific mechanism to disarm an audience and assert an intimation. Suspended from the walls, Cali Thornhill Dewitt's notorious and iconic combinations of emblematic American imagery with various colloquialisms and James Concannon's callous T-shirts, reinforce the capacity for scatological terminology to lose its initial repugnance once it becomes assimilated into everyday slang. As a result, Toilet Humour touches more broadly on the capacity for a generation of artists to cathartically confront moments of socio-economic struggle or political disillusionment with humour.
The multifarious array of work in Toilet Humour demonstrates the complexities of a space that in its quotidian familiarity, boasts a unique capacity to externalise the internal, publicise the private and rarify the utterly ordinary. Engaging with and perpetuating a short but pungent history of scatological art, these artists' nuanced work all bear one thread in common. Whether it's urinating, cumming, bleeding, defecating or bathing, they perpetuate an unforgettable physical attraction-repulsion response that nobody is immune to. As Tim Noble insists, "it pops up when we flush it away, yet we quickly take a peep after each wipe before we dispose of it." If you had told that teenage curator-to-be, appalled at the size of Gilbert and George's flying faeces, that in less than ten years I'd be organising an exhibition that was also full of shit, I probably would have told you to piss off.
Text Antonia Marsh