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The Porcelain Alter-Duchamp Fountain

The Porcelain Altar

by Sean O'Toole / 28.09.2009

It was early April, spring, 1917. Following an animated lunch meeting, an expatriate French artist and his two pals visited J.L. Mott Iron Works at 118 Fifth Avenue, New York. Like the DIY disciples who cram Builders Warehouse every weekend, the three spent their time marvelling at the elegantly crafted vitreous china. The Frenchman, though, was more than simply window-shopping.

Marcel Duchamp purchased a flat-back, “Bedfordshire”-model porcelain urinal. Two days later he delivered his readymade art object, signed and dated “R. MUTT 1917” and titled “Fountain”, to the Grand Central Palace, host venue of the jury-free Independents exhibition. The hanging committee took a deep breath and summarily rejected the work.

The Richard Mutt Case, as it was early on dubbed, has engrossed the art world ever since. Duchamp’s agit-prop theoretical prop has since been eulogised, mythologized, lionised, even smashed with a hammer and urinated in and on by attention-seeking artists.

“Fountain” claims many champions. Jerry Saltz, an influential New York critic who went by the CB handle “the Jewish Cowboy” while still a trucker, has described it as “the Copernican shift in art”. In 2004 it was named the most influential modern art work of all time in a poll of 500 art experts. The work is illustrated in Phaidon’s recent tome, “30,000 Years of Art”. Not everyone, however, is sold on Duchamp’s piss-take piece.

In 2001 the humanist photographer Robert Adams stated: “My feeling is that Duchamp has not been a helpful guide. His argument seems to have been the one offered in Vietnam – we need to destroy the village in order to save it, we need to destroy art in order to save it. But at the end of the day, what we have is just a urinal…” A fake one at that.

After its rejection by the gatekeepers at the Independents, “Fountain” was shown at photographer and modern art impresario Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery. It then promptly disappeared. Gone. Forever. Three decades later an authorised replica surfaced at the Sidney Janis Gallery, then in 1964, four years before Duchamp’s death this coming Friday 41 years ago, he authorised a third replica version, available in an edition of eight and sold through Galleria Schwarz, Milan.

But enough with the history lesson, this all simply a preface anyway. What I really want to get to write about are some men’s toilets I’ve been to around the world.

Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany

The Porcelain Alter-Ludwig, Cologne, Germany

This must visit destination for fans of Pop Art owes much to the activities of Peter and Irene Ludwig, who during their lifetime amassed the biggest collection of Pop Art outside the USA. Their 350-work bequest to the city of Cologne resulted in the establishment of this museum in 1976. Aside from several hundred works by Pablo Picasso, key holdings include Roy Lichtenstein’s 1965 oil and magna on canvas “M-Maybe”, also Andy Warhol’s 1964 work, “Brillo Boxes”, a work that prompted such an epiphany in philosopher Arthur Danto (he ditched his job as a chin-stroker, becoming a masterful head-scratcher, or art critic).

Incidentally it was Danto who not so long ago said: “As a member of Dada, Duchamp was deeply opposed to the idea of the Great Artist as cultural hero. He felt that the overheated adoration of the artist had had disastrous political consequence. So he was anti-art, which meant that he despised the artist’s eye and the artist’s touch or hand. Handless creation was a Dada ideal – thus the ready-mades. The consequence was that craft dropped out of the concept of art, the way beauty did when Dada set out to destroy beauty.”

Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg

The Porcelain Alter-Market Photo Workshop, JHB

Founded in the late1980s by photographer David Goldblatt, its aim to provide visual literacy and practical training to young photographers excluded from formal training in tertiary education institutions by apartheid policies, the MPW has since gained a reputation for producing stellar talent. Its alumni include three World Press Photo winners: Jodi Bieber, Themba Hadebe and Sydney Seshibedi. Curiously enough, Hadebe’s famous 1998 picture of a robber being arrested in Hillbrow was taken down an alley that long doubled as an informal pissing point. Other famous MPW graduates include Nontsikelelo Veleko, Zanele Muholi, Musa Nxumalo and Sabelo Mlangeni, the latter winner of the 2009 Tollman Award for the Visual Arts. Good photography aside, etiquette is also high prized at the MPW. A sign next adjacent one of the urinals reminds students that the porcelain pouch is “only for urine”.

Punta Della Dogana, Venice Italy

The Porcelain Alter-Punta Della Dogana, Italy

Housed in a retrofitted former customs warehouse, Punta della Dogana is the impressive new exhibition space devoted to the art collection of billionaire Frenchman Francois Pinault. Twice voted the most powerful figure in contemporary art by Art Review magazine, Pinault started out in the lumber business in 1963, three decades later, in 1990, refocusing his group’s activities on specialised sales and retailing. Owner of a controlling share in auction house Christie’s, his company PPR owns luxury brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint-Laurent, Stella McCartney and Balenciago, also the sports brand Puma. While Pinault’s power as a tastemaker in the creative fields is incontestable, his venture in football has been less profitable. Owner of the French premier league football team, Stade Rennais Football Club, the Rennes-based team only managed a seventh place in this year’s Ligue 1. Incidentally, the urinal here is by Italian manufacturer Ceramica Dolomite.

Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, Germany

The Porcelain Alter-Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich

The city of Munich will forever be remembered for the shame of the Nazi-sponsored “Degenerate Art” exhibition, held in 1937 in the neo-classical Haus der Kunst. Featuring over 650 paintings, sculptures, prints and books, the exhibition declared war on a heterodox list of avant-garde practices, including Dada, Cubism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Impressionism, Surrealism and the experimental modernism of the Bauhaus. The genius painters Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian were all paraded as degenerates, so too the photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the sculptor and writer of fairy tales Kurt Schwitters, also Otto Dix and George Grosz. This, though, is not the loo at Haus der Kunst, which has managed to reinvent itself as a progressive venue, even hosting the irrepressible Robin Rhode’s first major museum solo show, “Walk Off”, in 2007. Rather, this is the men’s loo at its main rival, the Pinakothek der Moderne. Opened in 2002, the museum’s holdings include a fair amount of previously degenerate artists (Beckmann, Dix, Ernst, Klee, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy), as well as an impressive holding of contemporary art. There is even a substantial design annex that includes furniture by Ron Arad and Zaha Hadid. No urinals though.

Near Shimanto City, Kochi Prefecture, Japan

The Porcelain Alter-Shimanto City, Kochi, Japan

This is not an exhibition venue, merely a public convenience on a rural road few non-Japanese are ever likely to travel in their lives. Although largely given over to Western habits, Japan has the ability to still deliver a few surprises. Like squat toilets and the occasional outhouse. Now rare, the latter were once a mainstay of the culture, places of beauty too. “Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature,” wrote the novelist Junichiro Tanizaki in his famous treatise on Japanese aesthetics. Pre-empting French social philosopher Dominique Laporte’s “History of Shit” by a good few decades, Tanizaki added: “Compared to Westerners, who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste.” Of equally inconsequential interest, Japan’s premier sanitary-ware brand is Toto. Their product line includes a residential urinal with electronic flush. It goes by the brand name Lloyd, not Marcel.

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  1. djf says:


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  2. stacey says:

    Great article. You’re one cosmopolitan pisser dude. Do you fart to empty the room or take a truly colossal shit? That Dominique Laporte book is available through the UCT library and well worth stealing…

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  3. Sean says:

    Stacey, usually I read the scribbles, scratches and scrawls on the walls and doors first.

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  4. Niklas says:

    Sean, you are just great! I loved reading this. Badge of honour from me, for whatever it’s worth. Thank you for your creativity, mind, skill, perseverance, energy, passion and all that!

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  5. rusty says:

    Sean i loved your piece – a view of your head is a treat -dont stop !

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  6. reech says:

    keep ’em coming!

    “We aim to please. You aim too, please.”

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