As a sub-editor by trade, some time ago my interest was piqued by the unveiling of Brisbane artist Joseph Breikers’ publicly-funded sculpture of a three-storey wooden outdoor toilet recently.

‘Artist’s career in the toilet’, ‘Flushed with success of sculpture’, ‘Game of thrones’ were some of the early contenders for headline material.

The work, bafflingly titled Qaphqa, was bolted to a wall on the outside of the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley.

My initial reaction as a resident of the Valley was one of disappointment at seeing perfectly good toilet infrastructure squandered in this way: I have more than once lamented the dearth of 24-hour public toilets within reasonable walking distance of the city’s unique council-designated ‘entertainment precinct’ (as evidenced by a search on the National Public Toilet Map app).

But on another level, an article on the piece in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail got me thinking. It featured a quote from the man who commissioned Qaphqa, IMA director Robert Leonard, who said of the ‘instantly gettable’ work:

“We encourage people to look at it and use it for photo opportunities but not as a toilet. It is art although as it was being made some rednecks went past and shouted out ‘That’s not art!’ which seemed to suggest they had already identified that it was.”

At the end of the yarn, Breikers himself reiterated, “I am happy for people to sit on the toilet and have their photo taken but hope they won’t actually go to the toilet.”

Of course, Leonard and Breikers are right to assume that public art has a way of bringing out the inner child/baboon in all of us.

Art dude Jeriah Hildwine talks about how unsurprising it is that the first thing people do on seeing Seward Johnson’s giant sculpture Forever Marilyn, her skirt billowing, is to try to look up her dress.

Let’s face it: this sort of behaviour is par for the course when there’s so much to poke fun at in the realm of public art. I love the way that bad public art in particular—such as the questionable marble likeness of the legendary Steve Irwin and family on Mooloolaba esplanade or the so-bad-it’s-brilliant Running of the Cutter in the main street of Mt Morgan (both in Queensland: do I see a pattern here?)—has an almost magical capacity to instantly democratise the critical process – a process that’s increasingly well served these days by the forum of social media.

Witness Matt Saraceni’s response to Patricia Piccinini’s gigantic Centenary of Canberra Skywhale. Created largely with taxpayer funds, its maiden voyage was above the National Gallery of Australia in May. The work is the centrepiece of his online articleThe Worst Public Art in Australia, in which he calls it “an enormous hot-air balloon shaped like a whale with giant tits” and accompanies his assessment with a photo helpfully captioned, ‘Moby Tit’. While Saraceni feels compelled to include a disclaimer that he’s sure there’s something he’s just not getting, surely the whole point of moving art from the galleries out into the public sphere is so that Leonard’s ‘rednecks’ can engage with it on a critical level and not just be passive drones?

I mean, hello, we’ve kind of moved on from the old ‘magic bullet’ model of audiences, right?

The polarising ‘us versus them’ attitude betrayed by Leonard and Breikers’ anticipation of a worst-case-scenario reaction to a sculpture of a dunny—regardless of whether it’s motivated by the desire to vandalise, a result of pure childishness or simply a desperate need to go to the toilet—turns people’s reaction to public art into a kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, a situation articulated no better than by British sculptor Anish Kapoor in the Sydney Morning Herald late last year:

“If you’re going to make a public object you need to engage public space … It cannot just be an emblem on the lawn. It cannot be just a fat turd on the lawn.”

Toilet humour is ‘instantly gettable’, something Leonard rightly alludes to in his summation of Breikers’ piece in the Courier-Mail story It’s lowest-common-denominator stuff: give us something to poke fun of and chances are we will. On the other hand, give us something that doesn’t insult our intelligence and it might just raise the bar for public art in general.

God knows, us ‘rednecks’ need to be educated.

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