MoMA Bathroom Group Exhibition “Down to Nature”

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Filed under: Art Pranks

At the Modern, Art in a New York Minute
by Randy Kennedy
New York Times
April 11, 2008

There are several reasons you might want to stage an unauthorized group exhibition inside the fifth-floor restrooms at the Museum of Modern Art: to attract attention, to poke a little fun at a powerful institution, to make a satirical point about the high-dollar commercial art world, to invite your friends to watch you pull off a good goofball stunt.

Fake MoMA site created by Brendan CarneyLast Friday just before 6 p.m., when a group of young artists who are finishing master”™s degrees at the School of Visual Arts entered the museum with strange bulges under their coats, they were motivated by all of those things. But one of the artists, Jonathan Hartshorn, who had already placed some of his drawings inside a MoMA bathroom and photographed them last month “” in what he called his solo show there “” had yet another reason for preferring its restrooms to those of other New York museums.

“The bathrooms are so clean, man,” said Mr. Hartshorn, 31, whose drawings often involve crosses, grotesque faces and cone-shaped masses. “Someone comes in to clean those things like once every 15 minutes. It almost looks like an exhibit space itself, it”™s so clean.”

And so after his group-show colleagues “” Brendan Carney, Thury Sigurthorsdottir and Scott Lawrence “” went unobtrusively into the men”™s and women”™s rooms, one at a time, tag-team style, to hang (with tape) and place their photographs and sculptures in the bathroom, Mr. Hartshorn got down on the men”™s restroom floor, draped himself with a shower curtain and began strewing flowers around the black tiles, in a performance-art piece that simultaneously evoked Casper the Friendly Ghost and Joseph Beuys.

Jonathan Hartshorn in his performance piece "Down to Nature."“I wasn”™t too worried about crawling around down there on the floor,” Mr. Hartshorn said. “But it was still a little skeevy.”

The exhibition lasted only from 6 to 6:26 p.m., the artists said, because a security guard, alerted by concerned bathroomgoers, showed up and tapped on Mr. Hartshorn”™s shower curtain. “He came in and said, “˜I heard there was a mental patient in here,”™ “ Mr. Carney said, “and Jonathan said, “˜No, no, it”™s just an art exhibition, and we”™re going to clean everything up.”™ And that kind of chilled him out.”

But the show, like so many others these days, was intended not so much for the fleeting moment as it was for the Web. There it lives on at, a disorienting site created by Mr. Carney that is almost a replica, down to the typeface, color scheme and links, of the museum”™s actual exhibitions page. (The museum”™s Web site is The big difference on the artists”™ site is a link saying “Group Exhibition Down to Nature” that takes a viewer to descriptions and pictures of the bathroom work, which includes six art objects in addition to Mr. Hartshorn”™s performance.

Mr. Carney said he had spent $7.95 to claim the domain name for his shadow Web site. (“I was really surprised that it was even available and that MoMA didn”™t own it,” he said.) He then used a common program that mined the code from the museum”™s site to replicate it on his own. “If you”™re familiar with simple HTML it was really easy,” he said, referring to Web site coding.

He and the other artists said that although the exhibition was a stunt “” it recalls a 2005 prank in which the British artist who calls himself Banksy surreptitiously hung his own art work at MoMA and three other New York museums “” their intentions were not meanspirited or mischievous.

“It was not a critique of MoMA per se,” Mr. Hartshorn said. “They have a lot of problems, but they also do a lot of good things. The exhibition “”doing it there “” was more about thinking about a way of conforming to the things you”™re rebelling against, but without really conforming.”

Officials at the museum seemed to find the humor in the guerrilla art assault on their stalls. “We knew that something different was going on on Friday when the lines to the restroom were longer than usual,” said Kim Mitchell, the director of communications, advertising and graphics.

If anything in the show came in for a satirical drubbing, it was the kind of archly academic art writing that sometimes accompanies such exhibitions. On the Web site, Mr. Lawrence”™s sculptures and drawings are described as ones in which “symbols and objects reach alterity through displacement or geometric operations.” Mr. Hartshorn”™s works are said to create an “introverted tautology.” (Can a tautology be introverted? Isn”™t the phrase “introverted tautology” a kind of tautology itself?)

Mr. Hartshorn said the language describing his work was lifted directly from the literature for a recent group show in which he was involved at a gallery on the Lower East Side. “I don”™t know who wrote that,” he said.

He and the other artists said that one of the best parts of their cloacal installation was not virtual but real: Some people at MoMA that night who were coming into the bathrooms simply to use the facilities stuck around to take in their show.

“There was a really great energy in there that night,” Mr. Carney said. “We”™re talking about doing this at some other museums around town.”