[Dixielandjazz] Yes, but is it art? - Redux

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Tue Dec 23 10:02:59 PST 2003

NOT OKOM, but a funny read with MANY parallels. If you get through it,
you mind will be changed about that traditional British reserve, Suggest
John Farrell, Dingo, Pat Ladd, Andy Ling, et al check this out and give
us a report on this artistic experience. ;-)

Steve Barbone

December 23, 2003 - Reprinted in The NY Times

LONDON JOURNAL  Blushing While You're Flushing, and All for Art's Sake


     LONDON, Dec. 22 — "Is this the toilet? I've been hearing about it,"
the young man with the half-smoked cigarette said eagerly, bounding down
the street. But when he got to the actual bathroom — encased in a
one-way mirror, so that the people inside can see out, but the people
outside cannot see in — he had a sudden, crippling attack of nerves.

"Not me!" he announced with unexpected vehemence, as if an invisible
force was preparing to lasso him and drag him through the bathroom door.
A deep red blush began to crawl across his face. "I'm not embarrassed,"
he said. "It's just not my sort of thing." Then he scurried away.

It has been in place for only a few weeks, but "Don't Miss a Sec.," a
contemporary art installation that is in essence a mirrored outhouse on
a construction site near the Thames, has been raising heated, even
violent emotions. While it may provide a fine opportunity to indulge in
voyeurism and exhibitionism at the same time — like going to the
bathroom in the bushes, if the bushes were in the middle of the street —
in reality the experience is proving prohibitively unnerving to some.

"I'd worry that there's an act of subterfuge," said Martin Dukes, who
found that he was, frankly, too scared to go into the bathroom. "You
flush the loo and suddenly the mirror is reversed, and everyone can see
in." He decided against it.

Matthew Southwell, another passer-by, called the toilet "disturbing."
Trying to explain the public's squeamishness, he suggested that it had
to do with what he called "British reticence about toilet behavior," a
trait that is neatly undercut, he added, by the country's robust
attitude toward the humorous implications of the bathroom.

"Well, it's a weird split personality thing," Mr. Southwell said. "You
don't want anyone to know you are going to the toilet, but you crack
jokes about it all the time."

As conceived by the artist, Monica Bonvicini, the piece was not meant to
be a Rorschach test for people's attitudes toward toilets, but a comment
on the contemporary art scene as well as a way "to subvert the
hierarchical nature of modernist architecture," said Matt Watkins, the
creative director of Broadway Projects, the sponsor of "Don't Miss a

The title refers to the chattering and gossiping that goes on at art
openings. Ms. Bonvicini imagined what it would be like to be able to use
the bathroom during an opening, while not having to miss out on
anything. To further her vision, she constructed a rectangular box whose
walls are the sort of thick mirrored glass used on limousines or in
police interview rooms.

Inside, Ms. Bonvicini's piece has a simple prison-issue toilet and sink
that, when used, inspire a strangely peaceful notion that you are
separate from the world, but part of it, too. With your pants off.

"When you use it, it seems like you're sitting in the open air," said
Vicky Thornton, the project architect for the huge construction site at
the Chelsea College of Art, where the bathroom has been placed. She
found the experience unexpectedly liberating. "I didn't feel like I was
exhibiting myself, but I felt like that's what it would be like if you
didn't have to wear any clothes," she said.

In the realm of the weird, the toilet is at the normal end of the
spectrum in this racy city.

The Turner Prize, given to a contemporary artist each year by the Tate
Britain (the gallery is around the corner from the toilet), was earlier
this month awarded to Grayson Perry, a transvestite sculptor whose vases
depict bestiality and child abuse and whose photograph while accepting
the award — in a frilly, Raggedy-Ann style dress and thick makeup,
standing next to his proud wife and son — appeared on most front pages
the next day. Last week, The Times published a long article about two
performance artists who put on various costumes (businessman, commando)
and crawl along the street in central London.

In this context, there is nothing radical about the one-way-mirrored
toilet, except for the roiling emotions it provokes.

Toilets are unquestionably a complicated issue for the British, starting
with how to describe them. Though such distinctions are falling away,
the word "toilet" traditionally had lower-class connotations and was
avoided by others at all costs. Aristocrats preferred the blasé "loo,"
while the nervous middle classes were instructed that the
euphemistically elaborate "lavatory" was correct.

"It's a very personal issue, which is why this glass cubicle, from a
toileting perspective, is a little bit inhibiting," said Richard
Chisness, director of the British Toilet Association, which lobbies for
more and better public bathrooms. Any obvious bathroom on the street has
the same problem, whether its walls are see-through or not, he said.

"People don't like to be seen going in and out of a telephone-booth-like
cubicle," Mr. Chisness said, "because then people know they're going to
the loo."

Mr. Chisness is not the world's biggest fan of "Don't Miss a Sec." "I
didn't see any baby-change facilities there, or facilities for those
with special needs," he said sternly. But it is better than nothing.
"Anything that encourages more toilets in more locations — obviously,
the B.T.A. welcomes it," he said.

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