|piss art:Images of urination in 20th century art
Notes for a slide lecture presented at the University of South Australia, Adelaide, 9 September 1997, University of South Australia School of Art, 17 October 1997, Artspace, Sydney, 7 February 1998, Mercury Cinema, Adelaide, 4 November 1998.
In 1997 I curated an exhibition called 'ambient (male) identity' (Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, 5-28 September 1997) that explored how artists communicate identity through abstract or conceptual means. Thinking about the coding of male identity in abstract art led me to look at Andy Warhol's 'Oxidation' paintings. These were made by the artist and his friends urinating on to canvas prepared with copper oxide. When I began to look for more images that represented urination as a sign of maleness, I found many. This presentation is a basic iconographic study. It looks at images of urination in art as a sign of abjection, liberation, political resistance, eroticism, fraternity, metaphor and gender difference. The approach is context specific, it looks at what the activity of urinating means in different contexts, and what it says about the way we understand our bodies and ourselves through art.
The presentation looks at a range of images of art produced mostly over the past twenty years. What we discover is that this activity is one that is cultural and social, and its meaning isn't fixed.
There are a few articles that explore this subject, most particularly with reference to the work of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. Most texts on Warhol's work mention the 'Oxidation' paintings. Jonathan Weinberg has written about the subject in his paper 'Urination and its discontents' Rosalind Krauss's book The Optical Unconscious, MIT Press, 1994, refers to Warhol's earliest 'piss' painting of 1961.
I had initially planned to write about this subject in essay form, however it relies upon the presentation of images, many of which would cause copyright and cost difficulties. Many of the images were taken from catalogues and magazines, while some were provided directly by artists for the purposes of the lecture. This text, then, takes the form of notes.
The presentation focuses on images of urination in art, and not in popular culture, film or pornography. It is also a list that continually grows, and since presenting this lecture, I have found many more examples that could be included.
For this web version I have incorporated a number of links.
Marcel Duchamp Fountain 1917
Sherrie Levine Fountain 1991
Duchamp's ready-made urinal is important in 20th century art because it inaugurated the use of the found object as an object of high art. The porcelain urinal was purchased by Duchamp from a plumbing supply store. ++ --->
Sherrie Levine, regarded as a post-modern artist, made a series of facsimiles of Duchamp's urinal in chrome and brass. Her work reinforces the iconic nature of Duchamp's work, and puns on its mass-produced origins. ++ --->
While Duchamp's use of found and store-bought objects as art proposed a radical gesture, the fact that Fountain is a porcelain urinal is important. It enables the joke implicit in the title (fountain), and retains a connection to the human body. Remember that other ready-mades of Duchamp's have a use that is related to the body: hat rack, bicycle wheel, shovel.
Robert Gober 3 urinals 1988
Emiko Kasahara Double urinal 1994
These works also draw upon the iconic nature of Duchamp's Fountain. They also propose a clinical conception of the body: Gober's minimal, diagrammatic non-functional urinals, Kasahara's marble urinals, each filled with bleach. ++ --->
Michael Parakawei Mimi 1994
David Hammons Public toilets 1990
Parakawei has taken Duchamp's Fountain, and by producing it as a life-size toy model kit, turns the icon into a product. Parakawei is Maori, and the title of his work is witty too, since 'mimi' is Maori for pee. Hammons invokes the humour implicit in Fountain. By attaching actual urinals to the trunks of trees in a forest, he also comments on ideas about urinating as a device to mark out a territory.
Jackson Pollock photographed by Hans Namuth 1950
Andy Warhol Piss painting 1961
There are many anecdotes about Jackson Pollock's frequent and public urinating. ++ ---> The most famous involves Pollock pissing into Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace. If you believe the autobiographies, it all stemmed from pissing competitions the young Jackson had with his brother Sande. In any case, it's all tied up with pissing as a sign of masculinity. Pollock's painting technique, dripping paint on to flat canvases, also invokes the idea of his painting being a metaphor for pissing. And of the idea of the penis as a tool to draw with.
Andy Warhol made his first piss painting in 1961. This work exists only as a photograph. The work was both a homage to Pollock, and a parody of the masculinity associated with img expressionism in the 1950s.
In her book The Optical Unconscious Rosalind Krauss also relates these works by virtue of the horizontality implicit in their creation.
Andy Warhol Oxidation painting 1977
Andy Warhol (Portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat) 1982
In the 1970s Warhol produced a group of large oxidation paintings, so called because they were created by pissing onto canvases prepared with copper paint, the resulting patterns the effect of oxidation. Warhol had friends create these, and he watched the young men piss on them to create them. An anecdote runs that Warhol had the men drink a particular type of Mexican beer because it produced an effect he liked.
These works involved Warhol in a director/voyeur role. They also make points about the relationship between high and low art (since they are like Pollock paintings, but actually made from piss).
The silkscreened portrait of Warhol's friend Jean-Michel Basquiat is painted over a piss painting, and this connection might be understood as devotional, since the act of pissing, in Warhol's case, is connected to eroticism.
Andres Serrano Piss 1987
Scott Redford Urinal, Melbourne 1988<
Serrano's work, a field of yellow, is from a series of photographs that depicted various body fluids (urine, blood, sperm) as purely img fields. Their physicality, and their cultural connotations are removed and they become rectangles of pure colour.
Redford's photograph of a stainless steel urinal in a Melbourne public toilet is similarly imged. It is recontextualised as a minimalist painting, but with a subtext of gay male sexuality, and the use of public toilets as beats (meeting places for sex). Redford discusses his work in an interview with Robert Schubert
Gilbert & George Stream 1987
Bruce Nauman Self portrait as a fountain 1960s
G&G's photo of a naked boy beside a river printed with yellow evokes the idea of a river as a metaphor for a journey, but also suggests a stream of piss generated by the boy.
Nauman's self-portrait spouting water from his mouth parodies the heroism of the male nude, and the masculinity associated with urinating.
Kiki Smith Untitled 1986
Grant Lindgard Smells like team spirit 1993
In the mid 1980s the depiction of body fluids in art was understood as a political act in itself, given that the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA had been lobbied to stop funding 'obscene' art, and the AIDS crisis had given new cultural meanings to body fluids (particularly sperm, blood and saliva).
Smith's row of empty glass containers, each etched with the name of a bodily fluid was a part of her investigation into the fragility of the body.
Lindgard's bottle of urine, bearing slang terms for gay men (bum chum, poo pusher, etc.) was part of a group of work that explored the paradox inherent in the homophobia and homosociality of male team sports.
Paul Quinn Pissing thing1992
Kiki Smith Male and female uro-genital systems 1986
Both these works isolate parts of the body in order to make it strange. The main purpose of Quinn's sculpture is to continually piss, the activity becomes for-itself, or as a purely aesthetic and machinic act.
Helen Chadwick Piss flowers 1991
Kiki Smith Pee body 1990
Sophie Calle The divorce 1994
Smith's work engages with the idea of the 'abject' body, a source of fascination to artists in the early 1990s. Characteristically, Smith uses materials that are quite beautiful, in this case the stream of piss is made from strings of amber-coloured beads.
Sophie Calle takes on the masculinity associated with pissing through an act of defiance. Her statement describes this work:
In my fantasies, I am the man. Greg noticed this very early. Maybe that's why one day he suggested letting me help him piss. This became a ritual for us: I would stand closely behind him, unbutton his pants, take out his penis and try my best to hold it in the right position and aim in the right direction. Afterwards I casually put it away and did up the fly. Shortly after we separated I suggested making a photo souvenir of this ritual. He agreed. So, in a Brooklyn studio, under the eye of the camera, I made him piss in a plastic bucket. This photograph served as a pretext for placing my hand on his sex for one last time. That evening I accepted the divorce.
Richard Hamilton Esquisse 1972
Ashley Bickerton Joan 1995
Hamilton's work relates to photography, and this lithograph acts like a photograph in that it captures something elusive. The image of the woman crouching and peeing is discrete, like the title of the work (esquisse is French for sketch).
Bickerton's portrait of an upper-class New York woman, crouching and pissing, is satirical, suggesting a lack of sophistication. The irony is that these are the people who would purchase works by Bickerton.
David Hammons Pissed off 1981
This series of photographs documents Hammons urinating on a steel sculpture by Richard Serra. The sculpture, installed in Lower Manhattan, is re-territorialised by Hammons' action. Hammons is arrested for urinating in public during this performance.
Annie Sprinkle Post-porn modernist 1989
Keith Boadwee Untitled 1995<
Sprinkle's stage performances explore socialisation, and the extremes of accepted public behaviour. As a part of her 'post-porn modernist' performance, she urinates on stage, blurring the distinctions between public and private activity.
Boadwee creates paintings by squirting pigmented liquid from his anus on to canvases. Like Warhol, Boadwee complicates the masculinity associated with pissing, since his streams are non-phallic in action. He also exhibits the photographs of his action.
Juan Davila Stupid as a painter 1981
Juan Davila Fable of Australian painting 1982-83
Davila's work deals with politics and sexuality, and he transposes pornographic imagery into the history of modern art. In Stupid as a painter, he shows Warhol's Marilyn urinating, and a page from a pornographic magazine shows two women pissing. In Fable of Australian painting he shows a figure characteristic of American painter Jed Garrett urinating on to a canvas to create a painting in the lyrical imgion style, popular during the 1970s.
Sadeo Hasagawa Joyfully seeking the impure land 1981
Andres Serrano Leo's fantasy 1996
Hasagawa depicts a male figure engaged in anal sex with two 'devils' and drinking the urine of another figure from above. Hasagawa makes a political statement by representing taboo activities in an image that incorporates traditional styles and motifs.
Serrano's image of a man being pissed on by a female figure is a part of his series depicting a range of sexual practices. It explores the complex power relations in masochistic activities.
Ensor The pisser 1887 / Lynen Image for Mannekin piss 1883
Daniel Malone Record cover for the band Pit Viper 1997
The two 19th century images show pissing as a leveller of class: showing both a member of the bourgeoisie and a worker pissing against a wall. The works also connect pissing with the political act of graffiti.
Malone's photograph of a man pissing on to a burning New Zealand flag makes a joke about the paradox inherent in such an act. Burning a flag is an act of desecration, the comedy lies in the act of pissing on it to put out the flames.
Robert Mapplethorpe Untitled 1971
Robert Mapplethorpe Jim and Tom, Sausalito 1977
Mapplethorpe documented aspects of gay male subculture and these works show an activity that is an erotic and fetishised act. The work from 1971 uses a visual code to refer to pissing, a collage uses the figure of water running from a toy boat to stand in for a urinating penis. See also my review of an exhibition of Mapplethorpe's early work
Tom of Finland Two untitled drawings 1980s?
Like Mapplethorpe, Tom's work represents a subcultural group through its activities. Pissing here is a sign of a sexual activity that relates strongly to ideas about masculinity.
Monica Majoli Two untitled paintings 1990
Majoli's paintings refer to stories told to her by her flatmate. These works, painted in a mannerist baroque style, depict the activities in a gay 'watersports' or 'golden shower' club. They also invoke the idea of pissing as a sign of fraternity.
Gilbert and George Friendship pissing 1989
Gilbert and George Urinight 1987
These works are quite specifically about fraternity. Friendship pissing shows a cartoon image of two penises pissing streams that cross. Urinight shows a group of young men pissing together. The works suggest the sharing of an activity that is specifically male, that is men commonly urinate in groups, socially.
Gilbert and George's photo series The Fundamental Pictures included magnified images of urine.
Charles Demuth Sailors 1930
Demuth produced a small number of erotic watercolours, and these images, showing sailors pissing, one holding another's penis, also deal with fraternity and comradeship. Of course there is a strong subtext of eroticism.
Pierre et Gilles Le Petite Jardinier 1980s
Larry Clark Untitled 1992
Pierre et Gilles' photograph of a young man pissing into a flower garden is erotic, but also about the pleasure inherent in the act of pissing. Like Larry Clark's photograph of an adolescent boy pissing, there is a relaxed relationship to the activity. Clark's image is surprisingly frank and 'innocent'.
Larry Clark Images from the film KIDS 1995
These photographs which show a boy pissing while another sits in the bath beside him also deal with fraternity. They are erotic because of their frankness, and because of the boys' obliviousness to the erotic potential of their activity.
Tony Tasset I peed in my pants 1994
Andres Serrano Piss Christ 1989
Tasset's self-portrait standing with his arms folded and pissing himself is defiant, and shows a sense of embodiment that is active, participatory and transformative. He turns a taboo activity into one of assertion and self possession.
Serrano's infamous image of a religious icon (Christ on the cross) submerged in urine is from a series of various religious and cultural icons immersed in various bodily fluids. In these works Serrano closes the space between a symbol of divinity and a substance that is entirely corporeal. This proximity is alarming. It has the effect of emphasising our own sense of physical existence in the world.
Christopher Chapman Untitled drawings 1997
These drawings were made in 1997 when I was researching this topic. They are from a series of drawings traced from gay 'watersports' magazines. For me, reproducing the images in ink and watercolour on tracing paper conveyed a certain delicacy and lightness akin to the activity itself, as well as making connections between the activities of pissing and drawing. Although I didn't make them for an exhibition, they were selected by curator Kristian Burford for his exhibition 'Procrustean Bed' at the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, in August 1998.
Christopher Chapman is a writer, curator and artist.
text copyright Christopher Chapman
23 November 1998
images copyright the artists.