While waiting in line to pee in “America,” a toilet cast in 18-karat gold and installed in a Guggenheim Museum bathroom, I ran into my friend Fritz Mead, who lives in a shack he built himself out of scrap wood in a backyard next to a skate bowl he also built himself. The shack doesn’t have plumbing, so to use a working toilet he has to leave his shack and go into the basement apartment next door.
Given his apparent ambivalence about plumbing — let alone luxury plumbing — I was surprised to see Fritz waiting to use the gold toilet, which is the work of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. Estimated to be worth as much as $2.5 million, “America” (which opened at the Guggenheim last week), will remain installed in an otherwise ordinary fourth floor bathroom for a year. (When asked exactly how much the toilet cost, a guard said, “If you have to ask, you already know,” a riddle I am still trying to solve.)
Cattelan “intends visitors to use the toilet just as they would any other facility in the building,” according to the wall text. It gets special treatment, though: only one visitor is allowed inside the stall at a time, for no more than five minutes; the toilet seat must not be lifted; a security guard inspects the toilet after each visit; and a cleaning crew cleans it with a special gold-cleaning product every 20 minutes. The wait time when I visited was two hours.
Fritz explained he was there for a class assignment at the School of Visual Arts, where he’s studying graphic design; he was required to make a fake invitation for the opening of “America.” As a builder (he went to furniture school), Fritz appreciates the genius of all toilets: “Toilets are really fucking cool, like, as an invention. There’s no mechanics involved. It’s just pure physics.” But is a $2.5 million toilet “good” “art”? It’s not entirely a new question — Cattelan’s “America” could be seen as the rich kid heir of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” the urinal he presented as a sculpture in 1917. “Well, contemporary art always seems like this big hoax,” Fritz said. “You feel like you’re getting played. Like, I just got played out of an hour of my day. But it’s cool that you can make a living playing a big trick on people. It’s cool that there’s space in the world for that. And it’s crazy so many people are here to see this.”
So, yes, “America” is an epic troll. Under the specter of the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, that walking gold toilet, it also seems like a dark omen, something Guggenheim editor Caitlin Dover pointed out in a blog post about the piece: “The aesthetics of this ‘throne’ recall nothing so much as the gilded excess of Trump’s real-estate ventures and private residences.” That we’re so easily duped into standing in line for two hours for a chance to put our butts on gold — and, in most cases, to post Instagram photos of ourselves putting our butts on gold — feels like a clunky allegory for nationwide duping currently underway. It’s a hideously, perfectly heavy-handed metaphor for our love of shiny objects sending the country down the tubes.
However, some of the guards at the Guggenheim don’t find Cattelan’s concept funny. Ray Taylor, a former US Marine with a US flag pin on his lapel, told me that he and “some of the other former military staffers at the museum were a little disturbed by the work’s title. It’s a toilet, and it’s called ‘America’?” But otherwise, Taylor says he enjoys walking up and down the two-hour line, teasing eager tourists with a laminated photograph of the golden toilet. “A lot of the Americans leave when they see the photo,” Taylor says, because they think it’s offensive, or just a waste of time. “But Europeans, they wait. A lot of them know Cattelan’s work and came specifically to see this.”
When I finally got to the front of the line, a security guard asked me to wait a few minutes longer while a rubber-gloved employee from Crothall Cleaning Services — which has helped maintain the Guggenheim since 1992 — entered the bathroom to clean the gold toilet. In the week since it opened to the public, according to the Taylor, no especially big messes have been made in the bathroom, and there have been no instances of inappropriate behavior involving the toilet, although one visitor lifted the seat and accidentally damaged a hinge. “Now we have a sign in eight languages telling people not to lift the seat,” Taylor said.
When asked what the cleaning crew thought of this particular gig, Taylor told me they didn’t speak much English. Especially in the context of the anti-immigrant rhetoric currently poisoning the national discourse, this added another too-obvious layer of irony to Cattelan’s intervention: the notion that a Crothall Cleaning Services employee had, ostensibly, immigrated to the US and was now cleaning not just any toilet, but a ~$2.5 million golden toilet called “America”? Rage Against the Machine should reunite and write a song about that.
In the bathroom, the golden toilet sparkled. It was very clean. I peed in “America” and wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.