I recently happened across the doings of a guy I knew in high school. I didn’t know him, though, as well as I knew his sister. She was in my class, and in 11th grade we briefly flirted with each other. After some awkward conversations brokered by our friends, we agreed to go to the Holiday Ball together. But it was a false start. One or the other of us backed out, and we didn’t speak again until graduation, where we sat side-by-side, sweating, waiting for our diplomas. Her last name was Wood.
Dan Wood, her older brother, was a wit. He was tall, lanky, bright, and sarcastic. He had a flair for painting and theater. He went off to an Ivy League university, but when I was back home, his name would come up from time to time. Dan was always up to something clever— something that made me envious, even though I had no talent for it — like black box theater, a photojournalistic biking tour of Czechoslovakia, video art, improvisational comedy, printmaking. Dan is brave; he’s content being oblique. He doesn’t have to overstate everything, as young i writers do.
Lately Dan has been involved in a print project that explores the forms and meanings of urinals. He launched the project in 1996 with a perfectly bound artist’s book of 18 duotone plates of the Portojohns installed in Washington, D.C., for the Million Man March. “Throughout history,” Dan claims, “the organizers of large public gatherings have fallen into two groups: those that planned for the sanitary sewage disposal needs of the attendees, and those that did not.’’ More recently, Dan has been taking photographs of the Longest Urinal in the World, the 290-foot trough rebuilt each fall by Royal Flush, Inc, at the base of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on Staten Island in preparation for the New York Marathon. He has arranged photographs and lithographs of the spout and drain sections of the urinal in a trifold booklet. One of the prints is on view at Urinal.net (www. urinal net), an online exhibition of photographs of urinals from all over the world.
The public urinal, what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “building, erection, or enclosure for accommodating persons when requiring to pass urine,” is a recent invention, dating to the 18th Century. Before that, a urinal was something used during private moments of urgency — “a glass vessel or phial employed to receive urine for medical examination or inspection.” Robert Boyle, the 17th-century scientist best known for coining Boyle’s Law (the principle that the volume of a given mass of gas, the temperature being constant, varies inversely as the pressure) urged that urinals “be diligently made clean with sand.” In 1642, Boyle’s contemporary, Thomas Fuller, an English clergyman and another wit, excoriated so-called “urinal mongers,” quack doctors who made diagnoses by inspecting urine: “Reasons drawn from the urine alone,” Boyle said, “are as brittle as the urinal,” which were made of thin, brittle glass.
Urinal.net attempts to recover some of the enchantment once associated with urinals. Ever since Marcel Duchamp “recovered” a urinal (on view at the site) from the street and displayed it at a Dadaist exhibition, the porcelain receptacles have been the butt of jokes. But Duchamp's “ready-mades” or “brain facts” were serious testaments to banality, to the futility of defining art as anything other than a philosophical decision. George Heard Hamilton called Duchamp’s objects “a victory of consciousness over matter and of will over taste.” Not coincidentally, in 1946, reflecting back on his installations, Duchamp said, “ Dada was very serviceable as a purgative.”
Duchamps choice of a urinal was apropos least of all because it symbolized the flushing away of staid attitudes about the function of art. Any man will tell you that his time at a urinal is time well spent. It’s a time for introspection, relaxation, exhalation, and frankness. You can only be you at a urinal. And what this site demonstrates above all is that whoever those people are who design public restrooms have been doing so with an increasing awareness not of their banality but of their function as venues.
Here are photos of urinals at the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, California (gleaming white); Jack’s Waffle Shop in Bishop, California (“pretty average”); Yahoo! headquarters in Sunnyvale (sterile as an operating room); and the Bohemia Night Club in San Francisco (filthy, stinking holes). Among the top five urinals are those at the Kowloon Sheraton and Towers in Hong Kong (an altar-like half circle of porcelain idols); the Millennium Dome in London (a futuristic series of pneumatic tubes bathed in a diffuse blue glow); Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley (a proud army of Junoesque piss ships); the torturous urinette,or“she-inal,” at a Dairy Queen in Pensacola, Florida, which, not surprisingly, never caught on with women; and Dan’s long trough on Staten Island, which stretches on forever but stands peacefully in the corner of a beautiful meadow.