Contemporary examples:

In the recent past, a large number of ceramic artists, following somewhat in Duchamp’s footsteps, have used sanitary and hygienic references in their work. There has been a resurgence notably of toilets and urinals, and bathroom installations, but also a reinvestigation of the metaphorical potential of hot water bottles, feeding bottles, nursing bottles, chamber pots and condom containers, as well as a wide variety of sexual tools and toys. These ceramic objects are often used in large installation pieces or as props in performances and video works. The use of these kinds of objects to serve as images, as signs for various social and political issues, often around gender roles and identity politics, is emblematic of contemporary culture and is found elsewhere outside ceramics as well. Yet ceramic materials and ceramic objects, in their particular historical references as well as their familiarity and accessibility, are ideally positioned to tackle these issues head on and provide meaningful, relevant, essential commentary on various aspects of life today.

A pioneer in these investigations is, once again, California ceramic artist Robert Arneson. In a series of shocking and very gutsy “funk” bathrooms, toilets and urinals of the early 1960’s, the artist explores and challenges our relationship to ugliness and bad taste by presenting these disturbing, offensive and depreciated objects in an abject, dirty, scuzzy environment that reinforces their potency. Of course, these are all now in important museum collections, yet their disruptive and controversial power has not abated. Despite the earlier example of Marcel Duchamp, whose cerebral, distant conceptual approach diffuses the abject, repulsive nature of the urinal, by shifting its position in space and presenting it as a pure, sublime form, Arneson’s visceral, scatological and anthropomorphized bathrooms, visibly tactile in their making, are exploring the polar side of this material as a serious subject for the investigation of art.  Their embrace of the abject, of ugliness and the discomfort they celebrate make a clear anti-kitsch statement that reverses Kundera’s aphorism. In Arneson’s work, an example among many, shit is the absolute denial of kitsch. John de Fazio in his investigation of the relationship between shit and death, and many others, followed suit.

New York artist Ann Agee’s ceramic works provides a commentary on bodily fluids that is directly related to our occulted and ambiguous rapport with the ceramic elements and objects present in our bathrooms. Her “Lake Michigan Bathroom”, made in 1992 at the Kohler factory in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, captures these ideas around bodily functions, cleanliness, hygiene, pollution and industrial waste. She represents all these aspects on the ceramic furniture and the large wall tiled panel that constitute her “installation”, and the potent and somewhat unexpected images are surrounded by more predicable (therein lies their efficiency), floral and decorative patterns in tasteful blue and white. The work examines all the familiar gestures and the innocent, unconsidered space where these acts take place and what follow suits in the ecology outside the bathroom. This beautiful and powerful work represents a subtle yet efficient critique of the bathroom as a space for the making and confining of uncomfortable and disturbing realities, here clearly brought to full visibility. This is something feminist artist Judy Chicago also explored previously in her “Menstrual Bathroom”, at Woman’s House in Los Angeles in 1972.

Another New-York artist who made important work at the Koehler artist residency is Matt Nolen. While working at the factory he was commissioned to design and create a full set of urinals and a tiled wall for the Men’s Bathroom at the Koehler Art Centre, where it remains, on display and in use. His bathroom is designed around “The Social History of Architecture” and the intensely colored, patterned and inscribed surfaces of the urinals and walls clearly contest the slickness and cleanliness of the all white and familiar public bathroom while they also incorporate various images around issues of masculinity, machismo and the expectations of men in social environments. I wonder how the patrons feel when they have to be confronted with such critical content as they relieve themselves directly on the elaborate and rather confrontational, critical artwork.

All the diverse and numerous bathrooms at the John Michael Kholer Arts Center have been designed by artists while in residency at the factory. Ann Agee is responsible for the “Sheboygan’s Men’s Room”, Cynthia Consentino for “The Atrium, Women’s Room”, Merrill Mason for the “East Women’s Room- Emptying and Filling”, Carter Kustera for “The Family Room- Tell Me Something I Don’t Already Know” and Casey O’Connor for the pre-school convenience “Childhood Vitreous”. Please check the website for the Arts Centre to find out more about this impressive ensemble.

A younger generation of women artists is continuing in this tradition. Kim Dickey introduces an evident feminist content in her “Pissoir” of 1994, a series of seductive vessels with sexually referential organic shapes, made with the intent to “intensifying the relationship between user and object”. These are meant to fit the female body and when inserted between the legs, enable a woman to pee standing up. They are politicized contemporary reinterpretations of the 18th Century bourdalou, a specially made type of porcelain vessel used in church at Versailles for the relief of women during the too-long sermons of a long-winded preacher, Abbé Bourdalou. Kim Dickey writes: “ the theatrical aspect of my work has led me to document my pieces ‘in action’ or ‘in situ’ through photography and video, which allows their suggestive qualities to be realized and encourages an interaction with the work that is necessary to its understanding”. Its documentation in use by photography “suggests intimacy and the function of the vessel…the mediation places the viewer at a further distance from the events and objects, emphasizing our ambiguous relationship to real acts and physical touch”. This reference to touch is central to Kim Dickey’s work since her preferred mode of construction is the assemblage of pinched clay forms, often shaped to refer vaginal, organic forms.

Comparable ideas are present in the work of Tsehai Johnson, but in a more readily functional context. Her “Condom Dispenser and Receptacle for Used Condoms”, 2000, is a complementary pair of elegantly sensual and sensuous vessels for the containment, in two states, before and after use, of the ubiquitous and necessary prophylactics. She writes: “ I do not want to ignore the potentially abject aspects of disposing of a used condom. The receptacle is removable from the wall, so it is very necessary to touch the used condom or the fluids contained therein…I believe that personal habits must be marched out of the realm of privacy and into the world of public acceptability”. The formal qualities of shape and surfaces of these objects, successfully bring the more private and hidden bathroom esthetics into the somewhat more public bedroom space.

The worldwide phenomenon of ceramic art residencies, a phenomenon that is very important in the ceramics world and almost exclusive, to that degree anyway, to ceramics as a art form, has been particularly helpful in permitting artists to expand on their practice. When these residencies happen in an industrial context, as is often the case like it is at Kohler in Wisconsin, at the largest sanitary wares factory in the world, the results, as they relate to hygiene can be particularly revelatory.

New York artist John de Fazio has taken advantage, like many others before or since, of the Kohler residency, in a complex series of toilet and urinal sculptures and installations. In his work, the notion of base materialism of ceramics (dirt, clay, junk, shit, etc.) is central. His work also often uses xerography for a similar reason, as it is “perfect in its inherent gesture of populist communication and appropriation, as well as for its patina of esthetic poverty”. The artist is very aware that his ceramic objects are the materialization of contemporary myths and that they might very well eventually become archeological artifacts, revealing to future generations the present state of our consciousness, not necessarily the one that most people would want to transmit. In doing so, the anarchic and contentious impulses of the artist and of the work itself are mitigated by an uneasy positivism.

New York artist and industrial designer Marek Cecula is another ceramist who has absorbed and regurgitated the lessons of Marcel Duchamp, particularly with his “Scatology” series of 1993, an edition of six sets of six pieces, made at the European Ceramics Work Center in S’Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. The artist writes that his work: “explores our paramount fear of death coming together with puritanical, obsessive attitudes toward sex and bodies, especially today in the midst of the AIDS crisis. White glassy porcelain made to fit the body, conveys a contradiction; it is a beautiful, luminescent form and surface which is used to channel and dispose of the dirty, unwanted by-products of our organism”. The forms themselves suggest male and female bodies, orifices and sex while the stainless steel trays remind us of the clinical sterility of laboratories and hospitals, and the fear of sicknesses and the degradation of the body they engender. Similar ideas are also further developed in the series “Hygiene” of 1995-96, with the porcelain vessels acting simultaneously as substitute for bodies and as possible sheeting for flesh, emphasizing the direct connection between bodily functions and the evacuation of the resulting matter through porcelain bowls, pipes and drains. In Cecula’s work, these processes are directly connected to the making of the forms themselves, especially with the “Scatology” series. In these works, in order to generate the basic form that will then be cast to make the porcelain objects, the artist made a depression, a hole, a negative shape, by digging his hands into wet sand. The holes left by his hands were then filled with liquid plaster to create the starting point for the models for the forms. It is very significant that these objects are not created deliberately, with the mind and the eye, but that their original form begins strictly as a tactile sensation.

Such a vicarious or actually tactile experience is critical to the understanding and appreciation of these kinds of works. Contemporary philosophy and critical theory are both invested greatly in the reconciliation of all the senses in their attempt to propose new and all encompassing ways to understand reality.  A new field of art history and art theory called “Relational Aesthetics” is particularly interested in this relation between real experiences and the experience historically assigned to art and artworks. Relational aesthetics wants to extend the esthetic experience beyond the purely visual in order to engage the whole human body in relation to its environment. Ceramics has a particularly important and efficient role to play in works based on such a relational aesthetics. Yet, sight and the eye, still remain largely central to contemporary discourses and practices (all mediating technologies and other forms of image making). This partly explains why practices that rely on touch, both in their materialization and their experience, remain fundamentally misunderstood and ignored in a world where the complacency of entertainment culture, in art or anywhere else, is endlessly feeding us more images to consume, then throw away, to be replaced by others, equally disposable.

The whole world has become one giant toilet.