Nearly 100 years after Marcel Duchamp unveiled his seminal work Fountain, 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.
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 founded Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
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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.
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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.
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