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Minako Nishiyama, Miki Kasahara, Yuma Haruna, “Melting Dream” (2014) (all photos by Yasunori Takeuchi, courtesy Toilennale)

Relieve yourself of the conventional biennials and triennials of the art world with the first art festival dedicated entirely to bathrooms. The smooth-named Toilennale is currently occurring in Japan, home to the world’s most complex and high-tech toilets, in the southwestern city of Oita. Commissioned by the city council, it brings together Japanese artists who have transformed 16 public restrooms into sites for art installations — kind of like pavilions at a traditional biennial, except, you know, each pavilion comes equipped with thrones for human waste (and no, this is not actually a large-scale Rem Koolhaas installation).

Officials have not stated whether the exhibition, which opened in July and runs through September 23, will actually recur every two years. As organizer Eisuke Sato told Quartz last year, the Toilennale is meant primarily as a way to boost tourism, providing “visitors with the opportunity to become familiar with Oita through art and bathrooms.” The festival basically attests to the fact that Japan’s public restrooms are so clean and cool that they warrant marketing as destinations one could find on TripAdvisor. (Oita already has a “transparency toilet” that shows off its interior when vacant.)

Hiroyuki Matsukage, “STEREO PORNO” (2015) (click to enlarge)

For this year’s Toilennale, one park lavatory literally becomes a sweet site, transformed inside and out by a trio of artists into an enormous piece of pink candy titled “Melting Dreams.” A video installation by art duo Tochka projects images of people painting on the mirrored, outer walls of a bathroom, celebrating bathroom graffiti as art rather than a nuisance or a crime. Other installations call for audience interaction beyond the bowl: the performance group contact Gonzo has posted an email address in multiple sites; shooting them a message leads one to view the works elsewhere — perhaps at a site some may consider more pleasant than a water closet.

Like any typical art biennale, the Toilennale also hosts a number of workshops and performance art pieces, except its offerings include a poetry reading that invites audience members into toilet stalls for private sessions. Of course, since these places are still open to use for their original functions, the festival has a couple of regulations: “Please knock the door before entering a private room,” its brochure states. “Please don’t forget it is a toilet. Someone may want to use it.” That’s wise advice, but it may be tough to follow especially for those who want to sit through, for example, artist Tatsuo Majima‘s piece, which is a 90-minute-long, one-on-one lecture on modern art history, presented on a toilet-side tablet.

Minako Nishiyama, Miki Kasahara, Yuma Haruna, “Melting Dream” (2014)

These works reimagine the bathroom as a sterile space, but Toilennale isn’t the first time the Japanese have plumbed the idea of bathroom as gallery. The art-flushed festival is sponsored by TOTO, the country’s manufacturing giant of everything toilet-related, who last year installed a gallery at Japan’s international airport that turns going to the loo into a carefully designed, immersive experience for all. On display like works of art, the toilets are accompanied by LED monitors screening videos of dancers from the all-female Strange Kinoko Dance Company.

TOTO also made headlines last week after opening the doors to its new museum that invites visitors to plunge into the evolution of lavatory design. The local lifestyles during historic periods like the Taisho, early Shōwa, and Heisei are explored through gradual changes in toilet bowls, seats, faucets, urinals, and more.

In all seriousness: if there’s a country that deserves several outlets to celebrate the design of its toilets and bathrooms, it would be Japan, where sleek seats for excretion offer features so advanced that some require guides to explain their butt-pampering buttons. (Incidentally, it is also the nation that brought us the seminal work, “Everybody Poops.“) The Japanese, however, are far from the only ones who cherish the craftsmanship of comfort stations: a quick browse through the online-only Art Museum Toilet Museum of Art (a name as elegant as “Toilennale”) shows that museums around the world take the art of bathroom design pretty seriously. We’ve come a long, long way from Duchamp.

Tochka, “Toilet Graffiti” (2013)

Tatsuo Majima, “Modern Art History Lecture ‘Where did modern art come from?’” (2014)

Yasuno Taro, “Trace of the Sacrament of Princess Soniko / Noise” (2015)

Hiroshi Fuji, “UTTM~UsedToysToiletMuseum–” (2013)

Yujiro Miyazaki, “Traveling Toilet” (2015)

Hiroyuki Matsukage, “Have no idea how to flush” (2015)

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

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