It is always difficult to ascertain whether social events are truly connected, and further, to explain what the connection really is; the lurking threat is that there is something we do not know regarding the individual events and the larger world because of our far-from-perfect means of gathering information, as epistemology confirms. But here, I would like to think not only that the event we are going to discuss is truly connected to another event I came across on the internet, but also that their connection can be observed in somewhat enlightening ways – enlightening for me, at least. The central event in question here is the establishment of an art gallery in Ooty called Gallery One Two and its second exhibition that is presently ongoing. In a town that is well-known for its tourism industry, and one which shuts down almost completely at night, Gallery One Two (as mentioned in a newspaper coverage) aims to be a small cultural hub that functions after sunset; and to this end, a decrepit toilet complex was cleaned, repainted and remodelled into an art gallery with help from the municipality.
The second event, which is to be connected to the first, actually occurred earlier than the central event. Gallery 1,2 has a website and a Facebook page for itself. The website homepage only has a video, a clearly satirical one that also features artist James Turrell and art critic Peter Frank, which introduces Gallery 1,2 – which is actually a (fictional?) toilet cubicle with one “art work” hung inside; the website claims to have spaces in Los Angeles, New York, and Japan. To viewers at least passively familiar with the trends in postmodern art, the satire is easily understandable. The “1,2” refers to acts of excretion.
The connection between the two events must be clear for the reader by now; toilets, of course. This historical repetition does not fully conform to Marx’s addition to Hegel’s quote about history repeating itself, because here, the idea comes first as a farce (not in the same sense, of course) and then as a socially relevant project. And it is no doubt a socially relevant project, because the transformation of a repulsive space into a space for high aesthetics reflects the aspirations of the nation itself, a nation which encounters the reality of open-defecation on a day-to-day basis, making it impossible for its people to move beyond the physical repulsion of shit and onto the plain of an intellectual dialogue with the idea of shit. But this is not the case in the First World, in which shit has occupied a more central than peripheral position in modern philosophy, art and comedy. There have been many unused toilets have also been remodelled into bars, restaurants, showrooms etc. in the USA. This divergence that happens when an idea is transported from the cultural context of urban USA to a small town in Tamil Nadu provides a reference for us. However, that is not the whole story.
The newspaper stories of Gallery One Two of Ooty highlight the social aspect of it, but the curatorial note (titled My Philosophy of Toilet) of the exhibition, which accompanied their call for application put up in their website tends towards an encountering of shit in a First World framework, even though it ostensibly attempts to be a bridge between the Indian condition and the First World condition – a tendency typical of the educated elite –and tries to incorporate everything from Gandhi’s concerns of sanitation (and untouchability) to the toilet habits of Hollywood stars. It refers to the privacy that the toilet space gives, the sense of relaxation and solitude, and quotes Zizek and Martin Luther, and points out the connection between the drainage and the city. Quite curiously, neither aspect comes out in the exhibition itself – which only has some text relating to Kitab al-Manazir. The text is entirely confined to the technique, and the exhibition has little to suggest that the text lacks. The “shit” seems to have been flushed out.