Saturday, October 28, 2006

Art History 102: The Crapper As Mode of Self-Expression

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Massage an art historian’s shoulders long and firmly enough and sooner or later he’ll share the story of Marcel Duchamp.

Marcel “Of Champ” Duchamp, one of my favorite artists, was a French Dadaist artist in the early 20th century, the one with the greasy-ass hair. He’s also the man responsible for thousands of perverts and home contractors alike being really disappointed when they rush to the museum to see the painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” only to find there’s no naked lady in it and something that only vaguely could be called a staircase.

In 1917, he exhibited a strange piece of sculpture the audacity of which sent the art world gasping for air, then sputtering on a gob of spit while it looked for a glass of water. It was a piece called “Fountain,” an actual urinal, hung upside down and signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt.”

The original urinal was lost. But there are several replicas. One is in the Tate Modern in London. It sits in a clear case after, some years ago, a couple of performance artists had to go No. 1 really, really badly and tried to use it.

The moral of the story: If you call it art, it’s probably art. Sorry, but those are the rules. The only question after that is whether it’s good art or bad art.

I had this in mind the other day when I asked my wife to take a swing by Fall River’s new art exhibition. You know — would-be strip joint mogul Paul Viveros’ setup in the Industrial Park. It’s a large sign for the park spelled out with toilets. He set it up, he says, as an artistic expression of Fall River’s (pun) shitty reputation.

But like any artist, Viveros refuses to categorize his work just one way. It’s also a comment on how “bordering communities need Fall River’s water to ‘flush’ their own waste,” according to the story. Wow, two artistic statements! Fantastic. Oh, wait, one more. “It also makes light of the drudgery of working every day, he said.” OK, that’s enough.

If I could speculate — which I shouldn’t, but try to stop me — I’d guess that Viveros is also ticked that he’s not allowed to open his hooter hut, much to the delight of his neighbors, and his life won’t be complete unless he leaves the Industrial Park at least a little tackier than he found it.

I have opinions about what this does to Fall River’s self-esteem, never mind what people who stay at the hotel think.

But he’s calling the toilet display art. Therefore, it’s probably art. Sigh. Sorry, but those are the rules. I had to judge whether it was good art or bad art.

So, beret tilted at a cocky angle, mustache waxed, I led my wife to my car, our magical chariot that would transport us to artistic heights rarely if ever equaled in the city limits. It’s a Toyota. It can do that.

“This is supposed to be the biggest Industrial-Park-and-strip-club-related freestanding readymade 3-D toilet exhibit to hit the art scene in a long time,” I said. “And it’s in Fall River, right off Route 24! How convenient.”

“Toilet art’s overrated,” she said. My wife is a successful artist who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. That’s the best art school in the country, bub. She knows her stuff.

“I wonder if any famous art critics will be there!” I said. “Like Paris Hilton or whoever the art critic for The New Yorker is!”

Yes, and so we were soon riding to our destination, in the shadow of the landfill down Airport Road, which since there’s no airport anymore should probably be renamed something more appropriate. Avenue of the Arts!

As you drive into the Industrial Park, it’s there on your left. Go a little bit past the UPS and FedEx dropoff boxes. There, on the grassy slope leading to the road from Oliver’s, is Fall River’s own WC field, so to speak. There, 14 new, stark white toilets in two rows, with a letter on each spelling out “INDUSTRIAL PARK.” At probably $350 per toilet from Home Depot, plus the decking they sit on, it’s at least a $4,900 “go to hell” sign.

And that’s about it.

We sat in the car, not saying anything, just watching it. It’s important when confronted with a new piece of art to absorb its profundity for a while before forming any conclusions about its aesthetic qualities.

“At least they’re not yellow,” my wife said.

“Yup,” I said. “Yellow toilets never look clean. But they probably will turn yellow if they’re just sitting out there like that, though.”

She cocked her head. “Is that all they do? At least maybe if one of them had a fuzzy seat cover or something. Or if they were all different kinds of toilets.”

“Or if he snuck a bidet in there. Just one,” I said. “With an exclamation point painted on it.”

“Maybe if it was one gigantic toilet 20 feet high. If you’re going to use a toilet for a political or artistic statement, don’t wimp out.”

“Or if they all shot out water in a pretty pattern — like at the Bellagio in Las Vegas,” I said.

She thought some more. Meanwhile, a TV reporter stood in high heels among the toilets, doing a newscast while a cameraman followed her. The things The Media does for you people.

“Actually, it makes it look like there’s a plumbing company nearby,” my wife said. “In that case, it’d be sort of helpful.”

I stroked my chin. “If I’d done this, I would’ve set up a little endtable with some magazines for browsing and a Lavender Meadow Glade Plugins air freshener.”

She glanced at me. “Where would you plug it in?”

I shrugged. “That’s what makes it artistic. Alternatively, you could run a long extension cord to the bar.”

We sat again in silence. Sometimes this takes a while. “Do you think ... uh ... anyone has ... you know?”

I looked at the reporter. She was standing right near the toilets and appeared to be calm, undisgusted.

“I see where you’re going with this,” I said. “No, I don’t think so, or she’d be vomiting into one of those things right now. But I do suspect this is going to be very popular with the homeless and people going on long drives.”

We left nursing the kind of artistic disappointment that only a Starbucks latte can cure. In the end, I don’t think I’ll visit the exhibit again. If I want art in Fall River, I’ll go to the Narrows Center or the Cherry & Webb Gallery. I’ve had enough of this artsy-fartsy stuff.

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