Lileks: Is it a work of art, or merely a bathroom in an art center?

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • September 6, 2012 - 9:59 PM

The Walker Art Center bathrooms are running for the Best Restrooms in America.

So someone should jiggle the handle, you think.

No, they're nominated for the Cintas' America's Best Restroom awards. We're up against a Virginia sports stadium and a Radisson hotel in Chicago, among others.

Those I'd trust to look like bathrooms, but in a building devoted to modern art? Maybe it's not a bathroom at all.

It could be an installation, an artwork masquerading as a bathroom. It's normal in every way, but the soap dispenser is empty. A video camera records patrons as they punch the thing with no success.

It's a comment on Western obsessions with germs, you see. If cleanliness is adjacent to Godliness, does that mean a perpetually empty soap dispenser is an advocate for atheism? These and other questions are examined in this provocative work, etc., etc.

Or they're just out of soap. How can you tell? If there's a little white card by the door that says "Lathered Up: An Examination," it's probably art. If the spigots are those horrid things that automatically turn off after four seconds and come in "Flesh Searing" and "Instant Frostbite" temperatures, look for a sign explaining that this is an examination of the duality of existence.

Be wary if they're running an exhibition of '30s WPA photography: The soap will be replaced with that ghastly granulated stuff, and the bathroom tissue will be those squares of waxed paper you remember from camp in 1972.

And now, the special art history-major section of the column:

If they're having a surrealist exhibition, the urinal might be replaced with an enormous pipe, and a sign "C'est n'est pas un commode." Ever seen a urinal with a plastic bag over it? Right: Cristo.

We now return you to the rest of the column, already in progress ...

We all know what makes a good restroom: soap that doesn't smell like Grandma's hand lotion; lighting that makes your mirrored reflection look 10 years younger and slightly thinner; soap and water controlled by gestures; a stack of thirsty towels with just enough nub to make your hands feel invigorated, and someone who walks in as you're leaving so you don't have to touch the filthy door handle. Perfect!

What we don't want: gesture-controlled paper-towel dispensers. You stand there waving at the thing like you're trying to get the attention of a distracted squirrel or conducting an orchestra of ants. You think: Perhaps I'm dead. They wouldn't calibrate these things for ghosts; they'd go off all the time. Finally the thing realizes you're there and spits out one sheet, because it knows you've already air-dried your hands waving them around. I hate those things. Or did, until I realized that they're actually voice-activated. When someone says "c'mon" or barks a curt curse and it comes across.

I'd like a job as a bathroom critic. You could get paid for writing things like this:

"Perhaps the orange-and-white tile is a conscious nod to the '70s in all its appalling glory; in 'American Standards,' Louis Kohlur's landmark essay on American post-war bathrooms and their role in the subconscious reinforcement of gender distinctions, the social critic noted that men's rooms had burly, earthy hues, and women's bathrooms 'trended towards the pinkish tints of fresh-flayed flesh,' which would certainly inform the user whether they'd transgressed the rigid, gender-normative signposts on the door. MEN. WOMEN. There were no other choices. Years later, this inflexible dichotomy echoes down through the colors of the tile, leaving the modern visitor to wonder: Was puce tile an attempt to bridge the gender gap, or a means of reinforcing it?"

You're thinking: Stop making stuff up and go report. OK, OK.

I went to the Walker to see if my memories of the bathroom were wrong and they'd been given an astonishing makeover. Well, unless all the chrome pipes were actually by Jeff Koons, no.

The bathroom in the original building is the usual '70s institutional blandness, and the ones in the new Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot-head building are just depressing. Black walls, ordinary fixtures. Dark. You wouldn't be surprised to knock on a stall door and hear "OCCUPIED" in Batman's husky voice.

"What did you think?" asked the attendant.

"An ironic juxtaposition of expectation and reality," I said. But it's not art.

Otherwise, there would be a picture postcard of the stalls in the gift shop. • 612-673-7858

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