The Italian artist is known for his controversial installations and contempt for the art world. At his first solo exhibition, Cattelan closed the gallery and left a sign on the door that said "Back Soon." In 2011, after hanging his remaining works in the atrium of the Guggenheim, the fifty-five-year-old artist announced his retirement.
But the gold toilet, entitled "America," represents his comeback. Cattelan, like an aging action hero, returns to condemn the world.
"America" is inspired by Marcel Duchamp, who signed a urinal and presented it as an artwork at the Armory Show
of 1917. Ninety-nine years later, Cattelan's toilet seems to advertise the poverty of the artist's imagination and the Biblical wealth that the museum commands.
On the morning that Cattelan's exhibit opens to the public I visit the museum with my roommate Thomas. On the fifth floor we find a line of bashful people already winding a little way around the bowl-shaped atrium. A camera crew circles and bystanders linger to take pictures whenever the door opens. It could become the most famous toilet in the world.
Some critics claim "America" is a comment on inequality, but Cattelan wants to let the viewer decide the meaning of his artwork. An American man waiting in line with his daughter says he is not interested in the artwork: he just wants a photo to post on Instagram. A Russian woman wants to know what it's like to be rich. German woman says it is a reminder that "Everybody shits."
The security guard enters between users to check that the toilet has been left undamaged. Gold tends to make people behave strangely. As we wait in line, I read "Great Again" -- a 2015 book by the Republican presidential contender -- which sets out his vision and offers frank observations such as: "People call me thin-skinned, but I have thick skin."
A museum employee arrives to clean the toilet with special wipes. Thomas goes, and then finally it's my turn.
All that is before me is the toilet and my use for it. Lenin once promised that after the victory of global communism, gold would be used only to make public toilets. And this thing is magnificent, immaculate, shining like the inside of the Holy Grail. The flushing toilet must be the greatest artwork of modern civilization, I whisper. And yet I sense there is something missing.
In the confessional privacy of the bathroom I take out "Great Again". The guard posted on the door might have asked me to leave the book outside, if it hadn't been tucked safely inside my pants. Then, in an act of solidarity with the aliens of America, I plunge the book into the toilet. It sinks into the golden bowl.
The contender's hair is shining, his face is radiant. His skin has never looked thicker. Lenin's vision is beginning to be fulfilled at last. Everything is right with the world.
I want to flush and see if I can clog the golden toilet. But the thought of who would be called in to deal with this strikes me as a problem for my solidarity. I wonder how much the museum cleaners are paid, and how they can afford to live in this city. Also Thomas, who has a degree in environmental systems, warned me that flushing the book would be irresponsible.
So I take my photo, like everyone else, and I remove the soggy book and deposit it in the trash. The contender's face now nestles there among used tissues. I have had my vision. The work is complete.
Orlando Reade is an art writer and journalist. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.