Reflections on Dadaism and the Restrooms in Smith College Museum of Art

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Blue sink at the restroom of Smith College Museum
Blue sink at the restroom of Smith College Museum

As we strolled into the Smith College Museum of Art in Massachusetts, this tall, dark middle-aged gentleman greeted us warmly at the reception.

“Hey there,” he began, “just so you know, we’ve got four floors of exhibits here, and you’re currently on the first floor. The third floor is temporarily closed, getting ready for our next big show.”

He paused for a moment, then went on, “Oh, and right around the corner on this floor, you’ll find our nifty museum store. But here’s the kicker: if you really, and I mean REALLY gotta go, you’ll need to head down to the lower level. But even if nature isn’t urgently calling, I’d highly recommend checking out our all-gender restrooms tucked away in the right-hand corner. Believe it or not, they’re part of our exhibits too!”

Smith College Museum of Art

He flashed a friendly smile and continued, “Now, go ahead and enjoy your time here. And if you’ve got any more questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Plus, you can grab a museum map from those racks over to your right.”

As he spoke, my mind drifted back to that Dada exhibition at MoMA in New York a few years back, and that unforgettable urinal “Fountain” artwork by Marcel Duchamp. It was a surreal moment. You know, it reminds me of that quote by Mexican poet Cesar Cruz, who once said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Funny thing is, most folks attribute it to Banksy, but that’s a whole other tale.

As we entered through the museum store, I, who usually devours the items in museum stores, hurriedly looked for the elevators that would take us down there. Our enthusiasm was all about the restrooms, for everything else we have time.These restrooms, tucked away in the lower level right next to the exhibition gallery, are like nothing we have ever seen before. They’re not just places to answer nature’s call; they’re permanent works of art, crafted separately by two renowned artists, Ellen Driscoll and Sandy Skoglund.

Restrooms crafted by Ellen Driscoll and Sandy Skoglund.

Driscoll’s creation is called “Catching the Drift.” As soon as you step inside, it’s like diving into an underwater wonderland. The whole room is drenched in soothing shades of blue, and it’s not just any blue – it’s a carefully curated blue inspired by the art collection at Smith. The walls are adorned with glass panels that are nothing short of mesmerizing. They’re delicately etched with images of protozoa, art pieces, nets, and waves. These glass panels, crafted in Germany, are like magical windows into a watery world, according to Driscoll. And the aquatic theme doesn’t stop there; it continues into the sinks, commodes and other fixtures in the room.

Marcel Duchamp urinal

Now, if you venture into the other room, it also has men’s urinals, created by Smith alumna Sandy Skoglund, you’re in for a stark contrast. It’s a black and white visual explosion that might just make your head spin– in a good way, of course. Skoglund, from the Class of 1968, wants to catch you off guard and make you take a closer look at every tile. It’s called “Liquid Origins, Fluid Dreams,” and it’s a tapestry of ten intricate drawings, each inspired by stories of transformation and creation from various cultures’ myths and folklore. These narrative images are carefully arranged alongside tiles with drawings of large, tear-shaped drops. And this unique design doesn’t stop at the tiles; it extends to the bathroom fixtures, where those tear-like drops enclose tiny human forms, a nod to Egyptian mythology.

Specially designed tiles and sinks.

You hit the nail on the head! Art should comfort the disturbed and rouse the intellect of the comfortable. Those restroom designs really did a remarkable job of blurring the lines between personal and public space, turning it into an art form in itself. It’s fascinating how something as everyday as a restroom can be transformed into an artistic experience that makes you think and appreciate the fusion of art and function.

So, how did these extraordinary restrooms come to be? The famous Kohler brand for bathroom fixtures had a lot to do in this venture. It all started with a bit of inspiration from the artist-designed restrooms at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin. Thanks to a residency at the Kohler Company’s Arts/Industry program, Driscoll and Skoglund were able to turn their creative visions into reality by having their designs fired onto bathroom fixtures in the massive kilns of the Kohler Company’s factory.

Driscoll and Skoglund's designs were fired at the Kohler Company's factory.

Absolutely, that receptionist’s intriguing introduction to the museum’s restrooms did spark some deep thoughts. It’s fascinating how Dadaism, which emerged during the chaos of World War I, challenged conventional norms and pushed the boundaries of what we consider art.

Museums, and art in general, have the power to be not just places of admiration but also avenues for reflection. They can indeed become an integral part of our lives, both functional and profoundly inspirational. They remind us that art isn’t limited to a canvas; it can exist in everyday spaces and experiences, provoking thought and dialogue.

Images courtesy: Mousumi Duttaray

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