An 18-Karat Throne Arrives at the Guggenheim. And Yes, It Works
The throne has arrived.
The long-planned participatory (shall we say) sculpture by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan a fully functional, solid 18-karat-gold replica of a Kohler toilet, an over-the-top apotheosis of wealth was installed in the humble restroom on the fifth-floor ramp of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum late last week and will be open for business to anyone with the urge on Friday. The sculpture was supposed to have arrived months earlier, but it turned out that molding and welding together that much gold was far trickier than anyone anticipated.
And yet after all the high-wire, high-security work to make the piece in a foundry in Florence, its installation was not much different from that of any toilet in any restroom in the world. Michael Zall, the museum’s associate director of facilities operations, said that a trusted plumber hooked it up, “with some butterflies in his stomach.” He added: “If he was ever a regular plumber, he’s not anymore.”
Credit Josh Haner/The New York Times
Mr. Cattelan, 55, who mostly lives in Milan, was on hand Tuesday as the piece was being tested out, dressed in a bright saffron-colored shirt, giddy and a bit nervous. He’s known as one of the art world’s most nimble jesters and one of the most expensive living artists at auction but he has said he hopes people do not see the toilet-sculpture as a joke. It is at the same time an absurd sendup of inequality (and a commentary on the runaway wealth inside the art world) and a kind of gift to the museumgoer, a rare chance to spend private time with something so ravishingly beautiful it’s hard to believe it’s real. Its title, “America,” is so loaded it seems to weigh more than the toilet itself. (The sculpture’s cost, underwritten by private donors, is not being revealed; the piece will remain in place and in use indefinitely.)
Credit Kris McKay/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
He invited me to try it. Because I both needed to and wanted to, I did, locking the door behind me. I’ve interacted with some art in my years of writing about it I once got to tweak an Alexander Calder wire portrait, as Calder intended, setting its facial features into lovely animated motion; I’ve gotten to walk on Carl Andre floor pieces, and I once held the heavy severed hand of a Hellenic bronze statue. But I had never urinated (if you must know) on someone’s art, and it gave me pause. As a formal matter, I’ll say that the sculpture really looks its best when in use, sparkling so much it’s almost too bright to look at, especially during the flush, which may be a new postmodern sublime. I lowered the incredibly heavy seat back down, washed my hands and went back out to find Mr. Cattelan.
I asked him if he liked it, now that it was finally in place. “I’m happy because it’s not on a pedestal, it’s not in a gallery,” he said. “It’s in a little room, just waiting for you whenever you need it.” He added: “When I saw it in there the other day for the first time, I cried. Well, almost.”