The Smell of Piss and Gold — Maurizio Cattelan’s “America” at the Guggenheim

After 10 minutes in the slow-moving line on the fourth floor of the Guggenheim Museum to see — and piss on — Maurizio Cattelan’s newest work of art, the French woman in line behind me asked what the line is for. I told her that she is in line for the restroom, only the toilet is made of gold and by an artist. She decided it is not worth the wait. As she waited for the elevator, she studied in wonderment the faces of the people who, like me, are wiling to wait for hours to have a relationship of “unprecedented intimacy” with a piece of art (i.e. piss on it).

For the remaining 2 hours and 9 minutes of the wait, a gay couple from Switzerland that conversed openly in German, obviously not expecting me to understand them, was in line behind me. I hope their relationship survived the museum visit. While the younger man’s oft-repeated insight that instead of experiencing things, one could just look them up on Instagram and then tell people at home that one experienced them, is undeniably true, I still side with the older man, who pointed out that they came to New York to actually experience things, not just to be able to tell people that they experienced them.

Then, after 2 hours and 19 minutes in line, I finally had some alone time with the golden toilet, which replaced a regular toilet in one of the Guggenheim’s single-stall, unisex restrooms. The piece is called “America”, which makes me suspect that the artist’s desire to communicate, through his art, a deep and nuanced analysis of our political and social environment that is based on his honest interest and profound understanding of the way the world works is less pronounced than his interest in sales-generating attention. Similar suspicions surrounded his decision to fake his own retirement after his most high-profile retrospective (also in the Guggenheim) in 2011. When an artist retires, supply dries up and prices therefore increase. Cattelan’s sculpture depicting Hitler kneeling in prayer subsequently sold at auction for over $17,000,000.

The restroom, like all other restrooms in the Guggenheim, smelled like sweet, flowery room freshener. The seat was cold, but sitting on solid gold did not feel noticeably different from sitting on plastic. It looked like a golden toilet (see above). It was disappointing. Part of the disappointment of being alone with “America” is that it is difficult to confirm that the bowl is actually made out of solid gold. It might as well just be porcelain covered with a small layer of gold. The color is not that different from the color of the drinking fountains throughout the Guggenheim, and I can imagine that there are plastic toilets made in China in the restrooms in the Trump Tower lobby that look exactly like “America”.

Before entering the stall, an attendant asked me to not lift the seat, which would have been helpful to experience the difference in weight between gold and plastic. I thought about biting the bowl, because I have seen pirates bite gold coins for verification purposes in movies. My understanding is that gold is soft and biting it will leave a bite mark. (After every visitor, the attendant checks the stall, so leaving graffiti or stealing the seat is difficult. However, the attendant did not thoroughly check the bowl for bite marks.)

Being in the presence of one hundred pounds of gold is not an experience worth standing in line for, so my last hope was that pissing into the golden bowl would be pleasurable. It wasn’t really. I assume it is even less fun for women. In the end, the only thing that “America” does successfully is what the museum’s blog promises: it reminds us “of the inescapable physical realities of our shared humanity,” just like every other receptacle for urine.