Urine: a survey

Piss is having a comeback in art, though some will argue that it never went away. As far as my generation is concerned this bodily fluid burst onto the scene when American artist Andre Serrano sank a crucifix into a case of his own urine and photographed the result. Piss Christ had such a cultural impact that following its appearance in 1987 it made it into discussions, just two or three years later, in a classroom at Long Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, where I was studying an art history A-level. It had appeal outside the venerable academy as well, becoming a touchstone for radicalism and humour among friends who had perhaps no further interest in contemporary art. In Piss Christ they knew all they needed to know.

I mention piss because this year I’ve recently found it in strong evidence twice, making pivotal appearances in two installations at work in both the UK and Switzerland. The latter example is salient, Swiss artist Shahryar Nashat is at MASI Lugano, where a prefix to his epic show is so unassuming you could miss it. But once you see this introductory work, two giant canisters of a homemade golden fluid just inside the door, it colours everything else in the basement of this slick gallery in the Swiss Italian Alps. 

The rest of the show looks like an abattoir designed by Stanley Kubrick, and a film featuring digitally-manipulated wolves is an attractive counterweight to the grim practice of collecting what looks like two weeks’ worth of one’s own piss.

Since the UK is the UK, piss is even more frowned upon. Actually, for the longest time it’s been frowned upon in public especially. The Croatian artist Dora Budor has fixed her attention on the many hostile architectural features which make pissing onto the side of a city building a hazard for shoes, socks and trouser ankles. There is one of these by the National Justice Museum close to the Nottingham gallery in which she is showing. Photo below. I don’t know the official term for this, but it sits about a foot off the ground and angles liquid away from the brickwork in order to frustrate drinkers who have been unfortunate enough to encounter one on the stagger home.

Budor has produced half a dozen of these architectural oddities in cardboard. They line one large interior wall of Nottingham Contemporary where I’m sure no one would dare use them. But given that anecdotal evidence suggests that some public galleries (I mention no names) serve as public conveniences as much as platforms for public art, Budor has made it clear we should be pissed off about how life in the modern era is often quite shit.

I’ll save shit for another blog post, suffice to say that Gavin Turk has not been entirely original by canning his own brand of piss, and selling it in packs of six, like Heinekens. Oh, and I saw a Marcus Coates film about psychosis in which this artist, who now travels the realms of madness as well as the realms of the spirits, performed a psychodrama so real to him that the frightened evidence began to soak the crotch of his jeans. I should also mention Hellen Chadwick’s Piss Flowers. Their early 90s date would indicate that this taboo art material really is a hardy perennial. Here ends my by no means exhaustive survey of urination in contemporary art. 

I don’t know what it means. I don’t know why it compels me. But having visited these spaces in Nottingham and Lugano within four weeks of one another I can offer the observation that piss is in the air. Now if you’ll excuse me, I genuinely need to go take a leak.

Shahryar Nasha, Streams of Spleen, is showing at MASI Lugano until 18 August 2024 // Dora Budor: Again, can be seen at Nottingham Contemporary, until 5 May 2024 // Gavin Turk, Artist’s Piss, was unveiled at 15 Bateman Street, London, in December 2021 // Marcus Coates, The Directors was an Artangel commission screened in various locations in Pimlico, London between September and October in 2022 // Helen Chadwick, Piss Flowers, was made during a residency in Banff, Alberta, 1991-92

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