Anna Piccoli

Obsessed with urination

Two men who turned pee into a subject of art

Urination as both a bodily function and a social practice may prove fascinating for some people. At least, it was for the artists Charles Demuth and Boris O'Klein. The former treated the act of peeing in relation with homosexuality, the second one caricatured aspects and problems linked to public toilets. Both challenged a taboo.


Chacun son tour (Wait your turn) - A print by Boris O'Klein dealing with the topic of public urination

Talking about pee is clearly a taboo. If you do it, you will probably provoke a great sense of embarrassment. People around you will either shut up or start giggling. It is a reaction one often has to face when dealing with practices, spaces or objects that are somewhat related to sexuality and the privacy of a (gendered) body. Yet, there are people who are fascinated by the act of urinating and decide to tackle the topic using art. I am pretty sure most of you are now thinking about the Fountain by Duchamp, but we already talked about it here. Instead, I'd like to introduce you to other two artists. Please, come and meet Charles Demuth and Boris O'Klein. You have probably heard about the former, whilst the latter is rarely an acquaintance, as it were.

Demuth is the author of some well-known paintings dealing with homosexuality. However, in a couple of works, he connected homoerotic love with urination. I am thinking about Two sailors urinating and Pissing contest. Created around 1930, they both represent sailors micturating and reveal the elegant technique of the painter and his great ability in using watercolour. At the same time, however, their scandalous content keeps the viewer at a distance. As it sometimes happens with artworks that challenge boundaries regarding the body and the sexually permissible, we experience an inner dialectics of repulsion and attraction.


Two sailors urinating - A watercolour by Charles Demuth (1930s) depicting two gay sailors urinating together.

No matter what viewers feel, though, they become the recipient of those urine flows. Given that the flux is aimed at the direction of the onlooker, the latter is turned into a virtual urinal: a provocative twist by Demuth, who went a step further than Duchamp, the man who made of a urinal a work of art. It is worth noticing, anyway, that such watercolours were not meant to be public, so that the audience was formed by an intimate entourage which would have not regarded them as deviant, but appreciated for their sincerity and openness.


Pissing contest (or: Three sailors urinating) - Another watercolour by Demuth (1930s) representing urination as a social practice that accompanies homoerotism

Interestingly, as Jonathan Weinberg notices, we tend to perceive the idea of looking at this allegedly private practice in men as more perverse than in the case of women, who are frequently portrayed naked and tending to their bodies. What strikes us in Demuth's work, though, is the explicitness. These sailors are not simply washing themselves, they are peeing and they are doing it in a group. The way their bodies are depicted clearly serves to highlight their penises and their double function, namely the corporeal one and the sexual one (here with a clear queer resonance). Urination is here a social activity that precedes the erotic act.

In a similar way, O'Klein brings pee and eros to the fore by means of prints with anthropomorphic dogs. The artist transfers on the animals what he considers to be two main drives of human behaviour: sexual attraction and the need to excrete bodily fluids. The scenes depict, for example, male dogs staring at a female passing by or lining up in front of public toilets (that is trees or walls), waiting for their turn to relieve themselves and getting angry at the disrespectful ones who try and bypass the queue.
The title always adds a witty layer to the image and highlights a problem or a factuality that we all experience as members of an allegedly civilised world. It's a form of dry humour that should help us reflect on public urinations, human needs, cultural categories and social customs.


Comme nos maîtres (Like our masters) - A print by Boris O'Klein caricaturing human practices of public urination