22 October, 2008

Toilets (what is it with...)


Aside from the fact that in nearly every mall or cinema, the queue for the ladies toilet is usually around 4-fold that of the men’s, and town planning departments should make it a rule that there are always four ladies toilets to every men’s toilet (but don’t), toilets don’t need Marcel Duchamp to make them interesting. There is something about toilets — I just don't quite know what it is yet.

For that reason alone, I (artist, Vickie Chan) plan to make an exhibition about toilets. I am going to collect photo evidence of toilets all over the world and make a giant montage. I am going to build a dummy toilet where people can go in and write their own message to the world. I am going to ask people to write down their most interesting toilet story, to ask them where the coolest toilet they have ever seen is, and do they clean up after themselves?

One day I am going to make a toilet travel guide. There will be one for France and one for Japan.

Toilets encourage and display all kinds of bizarre, wonderful, terrible, funny, abusive, hope-filled, spite-filled, angry and kind words of sentiment in the form of graffiti written in eyeliner, lipstick, Biro, Sharpie or scratched in paint using a nail file, safety pin, earring — whatever is at hand. We feel so safe in there we can bare our deepest thoughts and tell our most buried secrets. And say the nastiest thing about the person we hate most.

When you watch a TV show or a movie, toilets mean something. When I watch a show like ER or CSI, if I see a main character alone in the toilet, I start to think something bad is going to happen. If the character is perhaps sitting on the toilet with the door locked, or leaning over a sink just looking in the mirror and nothing happens, I know it’s ominous: bad times ahead. Veronica Mars used her high school toilet as some kind of makeshift office for her PI work, Judd Nelson shoved Rob Lowe’s head down a toilet in St. Elmo’s Fire and they bonded over it. And if you ever watched Ally McBeal you will know all about the crazy happenings in the toilets where she worked. I’m telling you people, there is something about toilets.

Toilets also encourage the least of cleanliness, it seems. While at home, you would wipe the seat clean, flush the toilet, maybe even replace the used toilet roll with a fresh one, outside of the home is a different story.

In Asia we commonly have two types of toilet:
  • The hole-in-the-ground squat toilet
  • The Western 'throne' toilet
Asian people think the squat toilet is cleaner, presumably because you don't have to sit on anyone else's pee and your skin never touches anything. Western people think the squat toilet is primitive and hard work. Let's face it, there are plenty of western-residing folk who are too overweight to squat.

And there's a lot less graffiti here. On a recent trip to Melbourne I was quite overwhelmed and bemused by the scribbling — no, discourse — taking place in the toilets. Interestingly, Australia is one of the few places I have visited where they use UV lighting in the toilets to prevent people from shooting up in there.

If I thought toilets in the UK were gross, I was wrong. They are worse in HK, I promise you, worse by far. In a ladies toilet you’d think that people might be a little more considerate but 95% of the time I walk into a stall to find that the seat has urine on it. And how is it that plastic toilet seats have scratches all over them? Do all women but me have metal spikes on the backs of their thighs? And if the toilet lid is down — walk away, my friend, walk away. It doesn’t mean that someone polite put the lid down when they finished, or sat for a few minutes composing themselves before hitting the humid streets. It means there is something bad in there, something you don’t want to see.

Where I work, the ladies toilet is disgusting. Aside from the apparently obligatory urine-on-seat situation (we work together ladies, don’t we have more thought for our colleagues than that?) the floor and surrounds often look like a giant hamster has passed through there and bedded down for the night - balls and chewed-up-looking tufts of tissue paper on the floor, in the bin, on the seat…

To top it off, why do women insist on standing chatting in the toilets for hours on end? I can’t think of a worse place to be. Ok, as a non-smoker you may feel that you are owed some kind of break in the daily bore we call work, but honestly, can’t you think of a better place to catch up with a colleague? Surely even the sweaty cigarette break scented stairwell would be better?

In that respect, I would say the staff of Seattle Grace has it right - meet in the elevator people, the elevator. Don’t hang around in the hamster cage we call the ladies toilet.

[And here's a tip for the ladies: When using a squat toilet, face the wall, not the door. It's a lot easier.]

Tokyo toilet

© 2008 Vickie Chan

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