Dressing-up the toilet

We encounter photographic images almost everywhere in modern life; yet, one space often bereft of image worlds has been the sanitised space of the toilet.  In the classic rendition of this, Dominique Laporte’s brilliant work, History of Shit, we see how this links to the cleansing of the social order in a privileged dialectical space: the toilet and the palace.  The poet, she suggests, is akin to the masculinised image of the thinker, one who divests himself of all cultural detritus in order to get to the clean, well-ordered and pure spirit of a teleological truth.  Yet this is duplicitous:

“Without a master, one cannot be cleaned.  Purification, whether by fire or by the word, by baptism or by death, requires submission to the law… The writer and grammarian, no less than the King, wanted language discharged.  But, like the city, it had for so long held in all manner of ‘mud, animal excrement, grit, and other filth’ that they had to climb into the gutter to clean it.”

With the toilet and palace related in racialised, gendered and sexualised renditions of knowledge and production (particularly when at the whirlwind of this relationship lies colonialism, the franchise and the body), and the desire to make the toilet look more like the palace and the palace more like a vast toilette lavishly dressed, there came – at their moment of public manifestation (think our university) – the production of zones of excrescence (the library toilet and the academic office) a sanitisation that wished to strip the walls (even to their interiors, paper thin) of any superfluous decoration that might make the thin veil separating their intertwined spaces manifest.  Academics resist with postcards and posters (as do students), but as Kafka said of the ghosts in the machine of modernity, it is only a “little flailing” after the final defeat.

Hence why decorations in toilets – and particularly photographs, the majority of which are now destined to end up in the pixilated dust-heap of virtual history (or in the hands of the CIA, if we are so Snowdonian inclined) – are somewhat of a curiosity.  On a recent trip to Wigan (?) I came across the following selection of images; half way between under-the-table 19th century erotica, avant-garde experiment, and Pre-Raphaelite and Art Nouveau romanticism.  What a strange collection of images to place above a public urinal in an old Wigan pub?


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