Text by: Jaune Ivoire
Mariko Paterson: The Scatological Remains of the Day
Once upon a time, Mariko Paterson made decorative objects that were gently ironic and elegant, but things have changed. No tender flowers brave this exhibition, which is aggressive and more than a little dégoûtant. Why would someone known for her highly crafted, historically savvy ceramics turn to squeezing out replica cat feces and energetically savaging long-repressed vexations? Faced with aggravation, we generally buck up and ignore waves of dissatisfaction, ennui and powerlessness that mount in response to parental nagging, job prospects gone sour, loan officers who prefer those with "real jobs" or apartment managers who never rent to anyone with spiky hair. Why do we ignore memories of abject misery that surface unbidden whilst wading ankle-deep in gravel laced with--need we say--crotte de chat? Well, Ms. Paterson just might have the answer in her elegiac installation, The Scatological Remains of the Day. Surprisingly, this exhibition locates itself within a stream of merde, crotte, caca, feces, poo, crap or plain old shit that appears with some frequency in the art historical corpus. Fecal matter can signify the divine, grotesque, satirical, political, embodied or even realist aesthetic. How is this? Jaune Ivoire, noted pataphysicienne (as designated by local artist Mireille Perron, following Alfred Jarry, author of the appropriately scatological Ubu Roi) is about to pull on her Miss Manners-style pink garden gloves, wade in and get to the bottom of it. In the words of another renowned pataphysicienne, the eminent ephem: "On est dans la merde ici!"* (*trans: We are in deep shit here!)
Even before Freud described the anal stage in terms of infantile attachment to bodily waste, theorists linked art and decoration with neurosis, likening painting to the smearing of excrement. Adolf Loos makes this patently clear in his "Ornament and Crime" (1908) when he writes: "One can measure the culture of a country by the degree to which its lavatory walls are daubed." Jeanne Randolph explains Freud saw neurotic symptoms as disguised communication, linked with primary processes originating in the unconscious of the patient. For Freud, artistic production represented the conscious discharge of accumulated aggressive and erotic psychic energy in order to achieve "intrapsychic quiescence" or pleasure. This model applies not only to twentieth-century work: art informel, abstract expressionism, certain genres of performance art or pranks such as Piero Manzoni's canned artist shit. Medieval Christian folklore about the Devil also demonstrates distinctly anal preoccupations. The poet Dante equates the portal between Hell and Purgatory with the Devil's anus, and the stalwart Luther visualizes his battles with Satan in terms of noxious farts and threats to stuff the Devil up his own butt "where he belongs." In Gulliver's Travels, Swift's malodorous Yahoos exhibit preternatural obsession with effluent from their alimentary canals. Endowing it with magical and medicinal powers, they regale new leaders by drenching them head to toe in excrement. Hmmmm--I don't recall that reference in the annual report of a certain multi-national Internet giant! Albert Boime sees even eighteenth-century neoclassicism in terms of anal-sadistic eroticism, as the rebellious son's "sublimated expression of the Oedipal wish projection" to blind, castrate or wound the oppressive father/patriarch. The flip--and equally Oedipal--side of this most temperate art form is the political caricature, the "imagined absence of parental prohibition." Here, Hell literally breaks loose with farts, turd-bombs, water canons shaped like clysters (for delivering enemas, the fashion passion of the 17th century: Louis XIV reportedly indulged in up to four a day), devils as giant anuses and soldiers depicted as crocks of shit. Warfare in this period was carried out as much in the fetid imaginations of artists as on any battlefield.
This latter reference ties anti-authoritarian scatological fantasies firmly to ceramics, which, of course, are made from material hardly distinguishable from fecal matter. Less-than-polite French slang refers to the clay cylinder used to throw pots as "un étron d'argile"--a turd of clay. Nor is this the only obvious link: as reported by the ever-respectable Dr. Judy Sterner, pot sherds are used as toilet paper in West Africa, and doubtlessly elsewhere. Chamber pots--found once in every home and often graced with lewd inscriptions--support this connection. Letting loose their contents in a "golden shower" upon the heads of imagined enemies, les pots de chambres make their appearance in work by even so decorous an artist as William Hogarth. Human and animal excrement both were valuable commodities used for everything from fertilizer to tanning to salt production. A despised yet necessary class of worker, the vidanguers or human waste transporters, mucked out household privies until bourgeois decorum and new methods of potty training, as much as concern about disease, spurred the nineteenth-century sanitation reforms. The demand for sewer systems and water closets stimulated industrial ceramics, putting out of work itinerant night-soil collectors and small-scale potters alike. As fastidious citizens, we now have less and less to do with our own ordure, and general awareness of bodily functions rests on intimacy with our pets. Perhaps through them we reenact our childhood fascination with defecation in ways now immodestly advertised on television and in supermarket aisles. As we stoop to scoop the litter box, do we recollect the clay origin of kitty litter?
Does Mariko Paterson reject idealist Kantian aesthetics to embrace even matters that disgust her, imbuing them with moral worth? Does she join those legions of rebellious bed-wetters, san-culottes shit-hurlers and fart-wielding devil-slayers to jar our false rapprochement with those situations that genuinely irritate and enrage us? Like pre-contact Aztec penitents, who swallowed their excrement to purify themselves of sin and evil, does she invite us to "swallow" and process the shit life deals us, the many annoyances large and small? In undertaking this personal ritual of cleansing and renewal, does she not also re-invigorate the Northern European tradition of carnivalesque humour that somehow enables us to bear it all? Indeed she does.
Shit list: Sources
The following have been of great interest and use to me while preparing my intervention for Mariko Paterson. I can't claim to have read them all, but I think I shall have to try. They are all available at the University of Calgary. Some are reproductions of older works, so I apologize in advance for missing publishing data. I have been aided in my research by various renowned pataphysiciennes, Ms. Paterson herself, Mireille Perron, Judy Sterner, Jeannie Mah, the ephemeral ephem and my canine companion, Mr. Nick, who took a personal interest. For reasons unknown, CBC's A Propos did not return my inquiry about the notorious "étron d'argille."
Boime, Albert. "Jacques-Louis David, Scatological Discourse in the French Revolution, and the Art of Caricature." Arts Magazine 62 (February 1988): 72-81.
Bourke, John Gregory. Scatalogical Rites of All Nations: A Dissertation Upon the Employment of Excrementitions Remedial Agents in Religion, Therapeutics, Divination, Witchcraft, Love-Philters, etc. in All Parts of the Globe. Based Upon Original Notes and Personal Observation, and Upon Compilation from Over One Thousand Authorities. (1891). Facsimile repro. 1968.
Canning, Susan M. "The Ordure of Anarchy: Scatological Signs of Self and Society in the Art of James Ensor." Art Journal 52/3 (Fall 1993): 47-53.
Corbin, Alain. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.
Dixon, Laurinda S. "Some Penetrating Insights: The Imagery of Enemas in Art." Art Journal 52/3 (Fall 1993): 28-35.
Kleeblatt, Norman L. "Merde! The Caricatural Attack Against Emile Zola." Art Journal 52/3 (Fall 1993): 54-58.
Klein, Cecelia F. "Teocuitlatl, 'Divine Excrement': The Significance of 'Holy Shit' in Ancient Mexico." Art Journal 52/3 (Fall 1993): 20-27.
Lee, Jae Num. Swift and Scatological Satire. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico P, 1971.
Menon, Elizabeth K. "Potty-talk in Parisian Plays: Henry Somm's La Berline de l'émigré and Alfred Jarry's Ubu roi." Art Journal 52/3 (Fall 1993) 59-64.
Miller, John. "The Fig Leaf Was Brown." Art Journal 52/3 (Fall 1993): 76-78.
Myers, Marshall Neal. "James Ensor's 'The Tribulations of Saint Anthony': Permutations of the Excremental Vision." Arts Magazine 54/4 (December 1979): 84-89.
Randolph, Jeanne. Psychoanalysis Synchronized Swimming and Other Writings on Art. Toronto: YYZ Books, 1991.
Rollfinke, Dieter and Jacqueline Rollfinke. The Call of Human Nature: The role of Scatology in Modern German Literature. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels (1735). Reprint: New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
ten-Doesschate Chu, Petra. "Scatology and the Realist Aesthetic." Art Journal 52/3 (Fall 1993): 41-46.
Weisberg, Gabriel P. " In Deep Shit: The Coded Images of Travies in the July Monarchy." Art Journal 52/3 (Fall 1993): 36-40.
Weisberg, Gabriel P. and Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, eds. The Popularization of Images: Visual Culture Under the July Monarchy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994.
Wright, Lawrence. Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom and the Water Closet, and of Sundry Habits, Fashions and Accessories of the Toilet, Principally in Great Britain, France and America. Facsimile ed., 1960
Jaune Ivoire is a dilettante painter, writer and frequent collaborator with Calgary artists. Her own tastes run more towards flatulent texts and images of exotic waterfowl.
Mariko Paterson is an artist who originally hails from Vancouver, has made homes out of Alberta, Ohio, Michigan and New York, but refuses to settle on a fixed address. while she is consistent in her use of art as a means of exorcising various demonic entities that continueto annoy and plague her, she admits, her life isn’t all that bad.
Rudy is a large Persian-Himalayan cat who Mariko befriended this past year. While his mindful owner, Tyler Fritz, has tried his best to counsel him in proper bathroom etiquette, Rudy’s ineptness in the “box” and lack of savy has been a major inspiration for this show.