“Somewhere More Private”

An Essay for Bedroom Bathroom: Miami Beach

Triangle Projects, December 2023

Modern bathrooms and art galleries are uncannily similar in at least one respect: both are designed to feature smooth, total brightness. In both spaces one finds imitation daylight shining with such cold, perfect consistency that its refulgence is anything but natural. This would seem to be customary, and conveniently so, for it is by the contrast created under excessive illumination that the status of estranged objects is assured as art—or shit. In the exhibition of art, alien brightness also aspires to the sublime, just as it once came streaming through the magnificent glass windows of Christendom’s cathedrals (indeed it is an almost religious complex of obligation, exaltation, and awe that draws many in secular society to the well-lit spaces of art). But what about the humble commode, with its gleaming porcelain and surfaces miraculously stainless? Have you ever encountered the sublime from a toilet?

Installed on the bathroom floor: Carly Sheehan, Bathmat. Acrylic on canvas, 31 x 19 in, 2023. 

One of the most obscure, inspired, and deeply penetrating works of aesthetic philosophy begins in the dimly lit, worn down, wood-paneled toilets of old Japanese temples. “The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose,” wrote Jun’ichirō Tanizaki in 1933, reflecting on a world of shadows then being chased away by electric light. His regard for the murk and grime of these old toilets is soul-stirring. “There one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones. And the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects or the song of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons. Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas.”1

Set apart from main buildings, surrounded by gardens or a fragrant grove, this kind of privy invites retreat into sensuous contemplation: relieved by solitude, one may quietly appreciate beauty in the age of wood, its subtle grain, the depth of shadows, the gently passing hours. Even Tanizaki’s allusion to an old-fashioned urinal rouses an unusual desire for the promised “morning glory” of pissing on fresh boughs of cedar, “a delight to look at and allows not the slightest sound.” But about “those four white walls… tile and a flush toilet” of modern homes and hotels, the aesthete protests: “The cleanliness of what can be seen only calls up the more clearly thoughts of what cannot be seen. In such places the distinction between the clean and the unclean is best left obscure, shrouded in a dusky haze.” In terms of clean and unclean, as Tanizaki would have it, the effect of total brightness sounds like an anxiety—antidote to aesthetic contemplation. I think it must be a similar dis-ease I sometimes feel in the overexposed white-cube gallery.

During early December in Miami Beach, through the sparkling hours of an international art fair, every conceivable room is rented though few are physically occupied. From the fourth story of a renovated deco hotel I watch vacationers, taste-makers, artists, and fashionistas bustling on sidewalks toward next events. Meanwhile in the quiet room beside me, a strand of coppery hair gleams upon a perfectly white, softly rumpled pillow, bathed in warm light from the broad picture window. This particular hotel room, including pillows, is a space of exhibition—cozy corollary to the immense convention halls of art fair weekend. Here, art casually rests in chairs, lies across the bed, loops on television, colonizes the sink and shower; and it is precisely that stray hair which gives me pause. This ordinary trace of life, I realize, would be almost an obscenity in art’s institutional contexts (where it must be verifiably intentional)—but art also lives in the folds of our filth and everyday routines: beyond the gallery, art sleeps, gathers dust, and fades with us into shadows. 

So it was a privilege for me to encounter this art from the perspective of banal cohabitation, even if it was for only one night. Naturally, the experience becomes richer with proximity and duration: awareness relaxes, thoughts wander, the body intrudes—at long last, I have a chance to use the toilet. In such a state I want the space to be functional more than aesthetic. All the same, here I am almost in ecstasy, listening to gentle streams of water spilling over a pair of rain boots into a bundle of yellow tarpaulin in the shower. What better way to contemplate this evocative fountain than by urinating beside it? I savor the brief seclusion in which our fluid natures freely express sympathy.

Detail of Becky Sellinger, After Aurora Levins Morales ("This time we're tied at the ankles. / We cannot cross until we carry each other, / all of us refugees, all of us prophets. / No more taking turns on history's wheel, / trying to collect old debts no-one can pay. / The sea will not open that way"). Rain boots, raincoat, sea, tears, bathwater, 20 x 20 x 20 in, 2023.

Regarding bathrooms, admittedly we are less gregarious than the public of ancient Rome, who within one marvelously begrimed place, could borrow books, critique artworks, shit amongst friends and impress strangers with gaseous passion (Romantics sigh: ‘Theirs was a philosophical culture!’)... Of course, a preference for seclusion hardly implies metaphysical reticence. Consider, throughout human history, what profound contemplation must have occurred behind closed doors: while women were assumed to be performing their toilette, for instance, as within the eighteenth-century “cabinets” where ladies retreated into activities “that demand meditation and solitude.”2 In the present age, we know that she becomes a maven, who has a room of her own.3

Emily Janowick, Time Capsule. Acrylic rod, bullet, hotel sink, 30 x 30 x 19 in, 2023.

Not that any hidey-hole could escape entirely from danger. Now, this experiment in Miami Beach involves the stakes of a close encounter: following someone into their hotel room. Familiar and vanilla though the suite may be, nonetheless there are distinct moments of recognition that one is courting a sneaky, stolen pleasure, about which the tourists with their luggage in the lobby, evidently even the hotel staff are completely unaware. There’s certainly no mistaking this scene for an institutional art venue. While rising in the elevator, one has time to anticipate thrills of confinement beyond a further door. 

The ambition of alternative context in this case isn’t radicality, but more intimacy. For me, it also raises the question—at what point could art ever be known too well? Are works of art not elusive, changeable, wonderfully subject to aging? In bright, fleeting encounters with art, impressions of depth and mystery are hard to come by; whereas my lusterless bedroom is a haven of admiring wonder. Not because my cabinet possesses such exceptional curiosities, but because it is where thought is most at home. I can’t imagine art without contemplation.

The modern conditions of contact with art, the speed, the spectacle, impatience and exhaustion were already suggested by Baudelaire in 1846. The poet’s lively critique of the Salon of that year registers disappointment in the air where familiar types are observed: the artists, dealers, collectors, the bourgeois, the bored; the standard offering of two- and three-dimensional fetishes. But that works of art should be exhibited and enshrined in monumental public institutions is a nonissue (art is a shared arm of culture and requires collective effort to exercise). Rather, Baudelaire’s criticism rallies for “justice” in art as the acknowledgment of a reality which is common property, neither idealized nor denied—dismissing as folly, for example, the brightly colored, exotic costuming so popular in figurative arts of the time, while revealing truly modern beauty in the dark frock coats of nineteenth-century Parisians (“the necessary garb of our suffering age, which wears the symbol of a perpetual mourning even upon its thin black shoulders”).4 Nowadays we will be just, I think, in recognizing how collective sickness has loosened habits; how our remoteness emboldens undress à la mode.

Emile Mausner, No Other Goddess Had Allowed An Image Like That In Her Shrine. Watercolor on paper-mâché, 9 x 21 x 2 in, 2023.

Surely one may conclude without doomsaying that the bright, smooth surfaces, the alienation and immediacy of the present social media age have perverted some of our sensibilities for experiencing art. But acknowledging the extent to which this reality is handheld, thus intimately accessible, calls aesthetic experience into the bedroom in intriguing ways. Bored and lonely, aimlessly scrolling, have you ever caught love with an image so completely and confusedly that you keep it to yourself like a secret—knowing full well what the heart preserves is a copy? What affective artifacts do you protect with insulating layers of your naïveté? Regarding the technologically overexposed present, perhaps poetic justice is best served where we really live—in private. Inhabited with care, that space can become more than just another infinitely reproducible interior.

1. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1977), 3-6.
2. See Margaret Carlyle, “Collecting the World in Her Boudoir” in Early Modern Women, Vol. 11. No. 1 (Fall 2016), 149-161. Among early modern gentlemen, the ‘cabinet’ was a “space where savant study and contemplation met, where worldly affairs were conducted alongside treasured personal effects.” In similar fashion, “a woman’s boudoir was designed as a hallowed personal space. Notions of privacy also underwrote [eighteenth-century] understandings of the feminized variant of ‘cabinets,’ described in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie as the domestic spaces where women performed their toilette or partook of activities ‘that demand meditation and solitude.’”
3. See Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt, 1929). “And (pardon me the thought) I thought, too, of the admirable smoke and drink and the deep armchairs and the pleasant carpets: of the urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space… If a woman wrote, she would have to write in the common sitting-room. And [there] she was always interrupted.”
4. “Note, too, that the dress coat and the frock coat not only possess their political beauty, which is an expression of universal equality, but also their poetic beauty, which is an expression of the public soul—an immense cortège of undertaker’s mutes (mutes in love, political mutes, bourgeois mutes…). We are each of us celebrating some funeral.” Charles Baudelaire, The Salon of 1846 (New York: David Zwirner Books, 2021), 140.