NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — For months during Smith College’s $35 million remodeling of its art museum, workmen stamping through asked urgently: Where are the bathrooms?
But not for the usual reasons.
The lobby bathrooms — commissioned art installations as well as functional johns — are fast becoming the museum’s biggest curiosity, even before they are officially “christened” at the museum’s reopening Sunday.
Toilets in artist Ellen Driscoll’s women’s room are painted with seaweed and protozoa, translucent blue tile flows around the room and several of the museum’s prize holdings appear to slosh behind etched-glass panels.
Sculptor Sandy Skoglund’s men’s room is a vertiginous blur of black and white: ravens perched on urinals, spattering drops and seething, mythical narratives tiled onto the walls.
Neither had tackled a bathroom commission before, but both were glad, as Driscoll put it, to “work in a realm both public and private, where people in the site become moving sculptural elements.”
Driscoll, recipient of Guggenheim and NEA grants, is best known for glass constellation mosaics in Grand Central Station in Manhattan. Skoglund is internationally known for her surreal, room-sized installations — a sleeping couple’s bedroom drifting with enormous goldfish; a thousand glass dragonflies vibrating among mini marshmallows.
“You know you’ve got something when workmen — who’ve seen everything — are coming in to check the progress,” said Linda Muehlig, curator of painting and sculpture at Smith’s Brown Fine Arts Center, which houses the museum. “Now that it’s finished, they’ve been shy about using it. We will be giving tours of the bathrooms at scheduled intervals — but people should know they are also to be used.”
Indeed, the pertinent equipment is in working order, thanks to donations and funding from Kohler Co. Smith alum Ruth Kohler, fourth generation of the Sheboygan, Wis.-based faucet family, directs the John Michael Kohler Arts Center where both artists spent time designing the fixtures for the bathrooms.
“I told a friend I’d never had such a good time with my head in a toilet,” joked Driscoll, referring to the 16 she painted while at Kohler.
Both installations are preoccupied, fittingly, with liquid —its universal and ritualistic qualities and its sources.
Titled “Catching the Drift,” the women’s room is submerged in a band of translucent glass panels, lapping with painted and etched waves. The sinks are cobalt — in one a white fishing net appears to be unraveling down the drain; another has a fishhook and lure splayed across the bottom. Driscoll transposed images of women from the museum’s collection onto glass. The largest two — a primitive portrait of a New England dowager and Corose’s “Gascony Maid” — face off across the space.
“They’re painted in such a way that the gaze seems to follow you,” Driscoll reflected. “And when they’re not looking at you, they’re looking at each other. One is young and sexy. The other seems repressed, maybe disappointed, but with a slight, inscrutable smile.”
Each stall has a different glass “window,” capturing a detail of a work or a snip of briny flotsam.
While Driscoll’s piece winks at the visitor, Skoglund’s “Liquid Dreams, Fluid Origins” is pure, visceral punch.
In the men’s room, tiny, black-and-white moiré tiles create a floor that seems to writhe. Ten creation myths, in all their blood-sweat-and-tears glory, dance along the walls. The effect is wrenching — as Skoglund intended.
“I wanted it to be overpowering,” she said. “Dizzying and disorienting. I wanted people to wonder if they’re in the wrong room. It’s an important role art can play in the consciousness of the spectator — the reconsideration of the moment.”
For “Liquid Dreams,” Skoglund drew myth narratives in black and white, had them fired onto tile and gave workers a roadmap specifying the placement of hundreds of tiles. Tales include the Indian god Brahman, who sundered himself to produce male and female, and the Chinese god Pan Gu, from whose corpse the world grew. Interspersed in the myths are tiles printed with droplets —they leak around sinks, into drains, down the sides of walls.
“They are black and white, so you can’t be certain they are water,” Skoglund said, alluding to more “charged fluids” like tears, urine, sweat, semen and blood. “Human mythologies are full of stories of humans transforming materials from themselves.”
In October, both bathrooms will be part of a larger exhibition, “Undomesticated Interiors,” which will feature Skoglund’s “Revenge of the Goldfish,” Do-Ho Suh’s fabric re-creation of his New York apartment and Liza Lou’s beaded “Kitchen,” among others.