The Use of Urine in Art
Urine’s appearance in art has a long history that began in the 1600s. During this time, paintings depicting doctors and physicians holding bottles of urine became common across Europe. Urology, the branch of medicine concerned with the urinary system, was a popular subject of interest. Unsurprisingly, western doctors of the 1600s had a much different understanding of urine than today’s medical professionals. Seventeenth-century doctors regularly inspected, smelled, and tasted the urine samples of their patients. This widespread practice became so closely linked to physicians that urine flasks became a popular symbol of the occupation—much like how we associate stethoscopes with doctors today. By the end of the 1600s, uroscopy fell out of common medical practice and subsequently fell out of favor in paintings. Hundreds of years later, urine’s use in art has found its footing again—but today, its presence has drastically different meanings. Often, contemporary artists use art to open dialogue about sexuality and gender. The following list of works display this pattern with one exception, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, which is such an iconic use of urine in art that it could not be ignored in this article.
Andy Warhol, Oxidation and Piss Painting (1977-1978)
Andy Warhol's Oxidation Paintings and Piss Paintings are both created with urine but executed using different methods. To create the Oxidation works, Warhol would spread a canvas on the floor, coat it with copper paint, and then direct his assistants to urinate on it while the paint was still wet. The acid from the urine oxidized the metal in the paint, changing its color. Warhol preferred the urinary contributions of his assistant, Ronny Cutrone, due to his vitamin B intake. His urine reacted with the copper paint to create a particularly eye-catching hue. For his Piss Paintings, Warhol directed his workers to urinate on a prepared canvas. These works are often interpreted as a slight to Jackson Pollock, who was rumored to have urinated on canvases before giving them to clients he didn't like. Warhol found Pollock's macho bravado ridiculous and substituted Pollock's method of flinging paint from a paintbrush with flinging fluids from genitalia instead. These works can also be analyzed within the sex politics of the 70s. Warhol was known for anticipating trends and never wanted to be left behind. He likely took inspiration from the works of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim and Tom Sausalito (1978)
This photograph features a black-and-white image depicting two men wearing S&M gear. One of the men stands while the other kneels and a stream of urine flows from the standing man into the open mouth of the one who kneels. Mapplethorpe was infamous for his transgressive photographs that celebrated the artist’s place among the queer community in New York. While Mapplethorpe did not consider his work to be a form of activism, the response to his S&M photos did spark social discussion. These photos were taken during the height of HIV/AIDS, an era marked by rampant homophobia. t Amidst threats of censorship, queer voices came together to support Mapplethorpe’s works and affirm their value. While some viewed this art as indecent and pornographic, others saw it as an exploration of sexuality and the human body. During a time saturated with homophobia, Mapplethrope’s inclusive and unapologetic celebration of sexual liberation was inspirational.
Andres Serrano, Piss Christ (1987)
Iconic and controversial, this work features a photo of a small crucifix that has been dunked in the artist's own amber-yellow urine. The image has caused lasting controversy— 10 years after its debut, an enraged viewer tried to remove it from the gallery wall.In 2011, the work was vandalized by two angry Christians armed with hammers. Rather than to stir controversy from the pious, Serrano intended to give viewers the opportunity to reflect on the societal commodification of Jesus. The lasting influence of Piss Christ on the art world is undeniable, despite its contentious reputation.
Helen Chadwick, Piss Flowers (1991-92)
Piss Flowers is comprised of 12 bronze sculptures that Chadwick created alongside her then-partner, David Notarius. Chadwick placed a flower-shaped metal cutter in the snow, then squatted over the metal cutter and urinated at the center of the flower. Chadwick then directed Notarius to urinate around her mark by following the shape of the flower. When the urination was complete, Chadwick poured plaster into the shapes left behind in the snow. The cast was then inverted and attached to a pedestal, cast in bronze, and then enameled white. The inverted flower would have a long-rounded shape at its center and smaller raised bumps around the petals. Chadwick’s mark at the center created a far more phallic shape than the shallow divots/bumps left by her male partner, who stood when urinating. Thus, Chadwick’s urine took on masculine imagery, while Notarius created the feminine petals of the flower. This gender reversal represented a challenge to traditional binary norms of gender and sexuality.
Itziar Okariz, To Pee in Public and Private Spaces (2000-2004)
In this series of performance pieces, Okariz chose specific locations at which, with no prior warning, she publicly urinated. Due to the illegality of her art, Okariz often selected a time when less people would be around. In these works, Okariz urinated with her legs spread in a strong stance, standing up. She filmed herself this way to mimic masculinity and its associated machismo. Her work repeatedly employed this motif, in order to comment on the brazen audacity of the male performance of sexuality. For this series, Okariz urinated in striking locations, from Brooklyn Bridge to an underground train station. She wears a simple black outfit that consists of a long-sleeve shirt and skirt that she hikes up when peeing. Often, she stands staring defiantly into the camera, and on one occasion, her daughter even makes an appearance, held in a sling as her mother urinates. Her photographs represent a compelling examination of masculinity and, like Chadwick’s work, offer a robust inversion of gender norms.
Cassils, PISSED and Fountain (2017)
Cassils is a transmasculine artist who created PISSED and Fountain in response to Donald Trump’s removal of bathroom protections for transgender students. Cassils began working on PISSED the very day that Trump announced this discriminatory policy. For 200 days, Cassils collected every drop of urine from their body. PISSED culminated in a plexiglass cube filled with the collected urine. Fountain, a powerful piece of performative art, was conceptualized in tandem with PISSED. Cassils performed Fountain in the same gallery, PISSED, which was displayed. Cassils stood on a high white pedestal with a glass water bottle, a kitchen funnel, and an orange jug. For two hours, Cassils drank the water and, when nature called, publicly urinated into the orange jug. Accompanying this performance was audio from the Gavin Grimm court case, in which a transgender teen fought his Virginia school for the right to use the boys’ bathroom and lost. Upon conclusion of the two-hour display, the urine from this piece was added to the PISSED cube. This work brilliantly criticized the transphobic policies that deny gender-nonconforming individuals their basic human rights—rights that have been increasingly under fire in recent years. Cassils’ work is filled with rage and bitter determination. Their use of urine delivered a powerful statement that speaks to the denial of trans and gender non-conforming individuals’ essential bodily functions.
Many of these art pieces feel reminiscent of the works of Judith Butler, who asserts that gender is a negotiation and a performance: “Masculine and feminine roles are not biologically fixed but socially constructed.” They remind us that sexuality and gender exist on spectrums and that individuals’ experiences with this aspect of their lives should be treated with care and respect. While urine’s first debut in art was from a medicinal perspective, its use has expanded to discussions of the human condition. Urine has been used to spark important conversations about gender, sexuality, and religion. From inverting gender stereotypes to advocating for the rights of the trans community, urine and the act of urination have demonstrated irrefutable power in art.
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