September 8, 2020

Political Protest or Public Art? Potty Gardens in Potsdam, New York State

Hank Robar lives in Potsdam, Upper New York State, a town with about 15,000 people. The main claim to fame for Potsdam is Potsdam sandstone  which  was widely used as a building material in the 1800’s.

Mr. Robar asked the town to rezone his property in the downtown of Potsdam in 2004 for a “Dunkin’ Donuts” location. That request was denied by the village, and Mr. Robar’s began his collection of porcelain toilets and urinals on three of the seven properties he owns in Potsdam, including of course the spurned site for the doughnut shop.

Of course the town tried to have the toilet bowls on the properties removed, claiming they were unsightly, a hazard, and not well maintained. Mr. Robar has argued that his toilet bowls are public art and free speech, and pointed out that he immediately replaces one of the toilet displays if they become cracked, and that he mows and takes care of the grass around his display.

In much the same way as Bill Heine argued for an art form when he stuck a shark on the roof of his townhouse in Oxford England Mr. Robar argued for his right for free expression and said he would take the town to trial if necessary.He then launched a lawsuit.

The story was subsequently picked up by Edward Helmore with The Guardian that provides some assistance to Mr. Robar’s art and free expression claim.”

As his attorney stated “Mr Robar’s art started as a political protest but it has expanded now into artistic expression. He still values the political protest nature of the art but it’s evolved into one of artistic expression.”

Journalist Edward Helmore points out that there’s a long history of toilets as sculpture commencing with Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain” which was part of the avant garde movement, and even Maurizio Cattelan’s 18 karat gold toilet. Produced in 2016, this American made toilet has had critical acclaim, and
was recently stolen. It still has not been found.

While no one has apparently stolen any of Mr. Robar’s toilet pieces, his complaint is now before federal courts.

Part of  the argument is that lawns and porches throughout the towns in the area are “adorned with repurposed milk jugs into painted planters, repurposed tires (also transformed into planters), repurposed beer kegs and other repurposed lawn decorations”.

If you can have those lawn ornaments why not toilets filled with flowers? When does political expression become public art?  Who has the background and authority to  (pardon the pun) ascertain what is the bottom line?

You can view the YouTube video below for a look at the installations.

Image: Toilography


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  1. To me this has a deeper message although it doesn’t seem to be intended. We forget that poop is transformed back into life in the normal cycles of nature. Instead we flush it into clean, purified, drinking water and send it tens of kilometres away to be partially sanitized at huge expense before we dump it into what should be clean water.

    Flushing toilets is one of the biggest uses of our drinking water. How much smaller could our expensive reservoirs be if we composted what now goes down the drain? This is especially important in areas where water is scarce but it should not be ignored even here.

    Yes, I get that some recovery of the nutrients is beginning to take place in our massive facilities so it can be trucked *cough* right back to where it came from to spread on parks and gardens. I also get that composting toilets have a little ways to go to be a simple solution for many households. But nothing should be stopping us from improving on them and making them the go to solution.