THE ART OF PLUMBING
“The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges,” Marcel Duchamp wrote in 1917 to the New York exhibition committee that turned down his submission of a signed urinal titled Fountain. Modernism in art began in earnest with that urinal, severed from the sewage system. It was a truly revolutionary act.
In 1918 Maxim Gorky recalled a visit to the estate of a very rich friend. The property had been confiscated (or “appropriated,” in modern art parlance) by the Soviet government and populated with members of the Red Army. What impressed Gorky most was that despite having working indoor toilets, the whole imposing building had been fouled throughout with excrement. The estate’s entrance staircase was covered with frozen human feces. The grand drawing room and its precious SŹvre porcelain vases were filled with ordure.
A real revolution gives its participants great freedom to publicly relieve themselves (or to “express themselves,” in the language of art).
A minor revolution (or “farce,” to use Marx’s definition) was started in 1961 by the artist Piero Manzoni who sold a can of his own shit as art.
Since then we have erected magnificent new museums with working toilets that nevertheless exist in a condition similar to that of Gorky’s friend’s estate. Don’t forget that the early purveyors of modernism in America were mostly Trotskyites. Permanent revolution was the cry of the day. Oh, those glorious days!
The artist and exalted revolutionary F. T. Marinetti wrote in those days: “Mother of a ditch, brimful with muddy water! … How I relished your strength-giving sludge … When I got myself up—soaked, filthy, foul smelling rag that I was—from beneath my overturned car, I had a wonderful sense of my heart being pierced by the red-hot sword of joy.” Nowadays, we call that art appreciation.
Having acquired the skills to wield both pipe and wrench, the artist Alex Melamid will successfully perform an aesthetic coupling that will flush the human as well as the elephant waste from our great museums. Once sent down the drain and into the sewage system, this effluvial excess will affront the senses of public no longer.
At the exhibition, a modern urinal will be connected to the sewage system of New York City and will be surrounded by traditional oil paintings of pipes, O-rings, couplings, cowls, and other devices necessary for maintaining a functional and highly effective plumbing environment as well as for the purpose of pleasing the aesthetic sense of New York’s discriminating viewers.
In collaboration with the composer William McClelland, Melamid is working to present a new opera, Der O-Ring des Nibelungen. The plot revolves around a magic O-ring that grants the power to rule the world by sealing the shutoff valve on a pipe that is leaking fecal matter into the River Rhine. The Valkyrie Brünnhilde—Siegfried's lover and Wotan's daughter who lost her immortality for defying her father in an attempt to save Siegfried's father Sigmund—returns the O-ring to the Rhine maidens with the financial help of America’s most prominent art collector, “R. L.” Brünnhilde commits suicide on Siegfried's funeral pyre. Hagen is drowned in ordure as he attempts to recover the O-ring. In the process, the gods and Valhalla are destroyed. Boom-boom, la-la-la!
Melamid at work. 2014
"God" by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Morton Schamberg
Morton Schamberg (American, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1881–1918 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Artist: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (German, 1874–1927)
Medium: Gelatin silver print
Dimensions: 24.1 x 19.2 cm (9 1/2 x 7 9/16 in.)
Credit Line: Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1973 Accession Number: 1973.637