Number one art

Taking the piss - figuratively & literally

Ever since the first cave lesbians carved hunting scenes onto their grotto walls and spat blueberry juice into the grooves, artists have been fortifying their art with body fluids. It’s a natural enough impulse, as body fluids are so handy. Why go all the way across your apartment for a wet nap when a bit of spit and a shirt sleeve will do? And who hasn’t spelled their name in yellow snow?

Medieval monks often dappled illuminated manuscripts with their pale pink, gruel-fed blood, and in the 19th century, a popular brown paint glaze known as mummy was made from – you guessed it – ground up bits of mummified bodies imported from Egypt. In more recent times, Andy Warhol created an entire series of paintings in the 1970s called the Piss Paintings (reportedly sprinkled and tinkled by Halston’s monumentally endowed boy toy Victor), ’90s British artist Chris Ofili earned the eternal damnation of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani by decorating a painting of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung, and Singapore artist Vincent Leow found himself in warm water (pun intended) in 1995 when he drank a glass of his own wee-wee at a Singapore art gallery to protest the city-state’s repression of homosexuals.

Closer to home, local darling and all round dirty girl Patrick DeCoste regularly adds his Mello Yello to his paintings, and once enshrined a curly number two in gold leaf.

So when the Toronto gallery/ knick knack shop Art Metropole decided to participate in this summer’s Ontario Society Of Artists-sponsored series of exhibitions based on the theme of water, the cheeky piss art show Passing Water seemed like the choice au naturel. After all, if you’re going to fill galleries with bladder-triggering images of bubbly flowing streams, you have to expect consequences.

“Just Art Metropole being bratty,” is how curator Dave Dyment describes the original impulse behind the Passing Water show.

“We never participate in these big theme shows, because we’re too happy on our own, but we thought maybe we should, you know, play nice for once. But of course, we wanted it both ways: To take part in the project and at the same time take the piss, literally, out of it. Because a lot of the water shows are going to be deadly serious and environment/ecology preservation themed, we decided to be more lighthearted.”

To wit, Passing Water features work by Toronto glamourpuss Karen Azoulay, who has made an installation entitled Tinkle Tinkle, a series of pee drop-shaped wall appliqués that can be purchased as a set (perfect for decorating your bathroom), as well as a Golden Shower Machine by US artist Adam Frelin, which Dyment describes as a toilet/shower stall combo that circulates the user’s urine, thus allowing one to relieve and soil oneself in one handy pit stop. Also look for Frelin’s water rerouting installations in the gallery’s bathroom and elsewhere around town.


Another standout is UK artist Mathew Sawyer’s CD of piss songs – lovely little ditties, composed and sung by Sawyer, that flow along (I can’t stop myself) with the cascading sounds of the artist taking a whiz.

Other participating artists are Joel Gibb (from the Toronto band The Hidden Cameras), Jonathan Monk from the UK and Alexander Schweder from the US.

When asked, in the nicest, politest way possible, why so many artists appear to be nothing but filthy, squirming little puppies licking up their own messes, Dyment turns philosophical (the last refuge of the fetishist). “Well, statues peeing is a staple in art history – every town has one. But body fluids in art have come to the forefront in the last 30 years because we are much less reverent toward the human body, we see its dirty side, too. And if you think about it in Freudian terms, the first things we ever create, as babies, are urine and feces. Babies play with their own excrement, like finger paint. This work is an adult extension of that impulse.”

I’ll buy that – but don’t expect me to shake hands.

*Adam Frelin’s water rerouting installations are also part of the current show at Mercer Union (37 Lisgar St); call (416) 536-1519.


Opening. 7pm. Thu, Jul 10.

Till Aug 28.

Art Metropole.

788 King St W.

(416) 703-4400.

RM Vaughan was a Canadian writer and video artist.

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Health, Culture, Toronto, Arts

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