It seems as though anything can pass as art these days. So when I get an invitation to attend an exhibit in the portable potty behind the University of Michigan’s Art and Architecture Building, I figure, “Why not?” Not only does the e-mail promise toilet-paper masterpieces, but the event is also to be catered with Twix bars and gum. How can I resist?
An hour after leaving Detroit and braving the torrential downpour flooding the highway, I arrive at the soggy outdoor spot: a damp piece of land at the edge of a construction site. I would have missed the show altogether if it weren’t for the throng of three gathered outside. The feeble signage — a square of toilet paper announcing “Art Show” taped to the door — fails to attract my attention from afar.
After introducing myself to 21-year-old Jason Polan, the mastermind behind putting strange art in strange places, and his two friends … er, patrons, I plug my nose and step inside the exhibit. Can real art exist in so desolate a place?
“Hey! Wipe your ass with this,” one sheet of toilet paper tacked to the wall reads. “Taste the difference,” says another. I decline both offers.
Other works include a showy square of TP smattered with neon acrylics, a tissue with instructions for use, and a small decorative shoebox housing three mini-rolls of consecutively numbered Cottonelle.
Despite appearances, this is definitely art of the thinking variety.
Can toilet paper squares be art? More importantly, what does it mean to use a portable potty, a Rick’s Portables Porta Potty to be brand specific? What is the essence of the portable bathroom? Surely folks use it only out of necessity. I wouldn’t be here if not lured by an e-mail promising candy. In fact, if I’d casually spotted this portable potty from the road, and even if I’d really needed to use the bathroom (which I, in fact, did, after driving for an hour in the rain), I would have avoided it at all costs.
On the other hand, despite its unwelcoming ambience, the portable john serves a vital purpose for many: concertgoers, construction workers and those drawn to state fairs, for example. One might even say a greater meaning lies behind its stark utilitarian purpose. The portable potty serves as a great reminder of our human limitations; it is an ode to the mechanics that rule our daily lives.
After a few moments of contemplation (which I suppose is any bathroom’s second greatest use), I realize what a smelly place a portable potty can be, especially after the rain, and join the gang outside.
I ask Polan what enticed him to create his aptly titled Portable Group Show.
“I’m always looking for interesting venues for the art shows,” the U-M anthropology and art major replies.
“He’s a prototype of creativity,” chimes in Sarah Rubin, a 22-year-old recent U-M graduate. She acquired her latest Polan gem, a $10 caricature, at an exhibit titled Getting to Know You, in which the artist sketched every student in the art school, handing them the proceeds if their likeness was sold.
Rubin says she probably won’t buy any of that night’s potty art, but Polan doesn’t seem to mind.
“All the art’s on toilet paper so it’ll be left here after the show so people can use it when the toilet paper runs out in the Porta Potty,” he explains. Form and function have never been so happily wed.
Several minutes later, a group of seven or so advance toward the exhibit, including one of the artists, Rachel Dominguez-Benner, 21, a graphic design and metalsmith major at U-M.
“I really synthesized what it means to be in a Porta Potty,” says Dominguez-Benner. “I kind of thought about the toilet paper aspect of it and wondered, ‘Well, do you ever wonder about how many sheets exactly are left on the roll?’”
Dominguez-Benner points to her other installation, a book of toilet paper that I’d overlooked before.
“I really was testing the absorbency of the toilet paper with the black book,” she explains of the ink-drenched pages.
Speaking of absorbency, I’m suddenly reminded of a conversation I’d had with my two siblings that afternoon. Some new hygiene freak, it appears, has been marketing “wipes” for grown-ups. Nobody here seems to have heard of the new product, but my photographer admits understanding the need.
“There’s nothing sexier than a clean ass,” he remarks.
Saying my goodbyes, I realize I’ve learned an important lesson: Art can happen anywhere, even in the place you’d least expect to find it. It soothes me to know construction workers will stumble across this very wisdom tomorrow.
Then I remember just how full my bladder is. With images of whimsically painted toilet paper parading through my head, I hop into my car and speed off for home.Ronit Feldman visits art shows in toilets for Metro Times.E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org