Toilet Training




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...Margaret Morgan has cut together bathroom and toilet scenes from 22 movies to assemble a tour de force of cultural mythology. From taps that pour blood to public rest room shoot-outs, via every variety of murderous shower scene and body-in-the-bath discovery, deft pacing eases the digestion of this lesson on a body-phobic culture’s fear of fluids. Morgan’s intelligent re-editing pulls apart her source material to reveal not her own cleverness but something true that was already there.


— Mark Wilsher, ‘East 2001’, Art Monthly, September 2001

Toilet Training is a twenty-six minute video that rapidly intercuts 22 movies and some home video. It consists of fragments of ‘bathroom scenes’ from popular film, appropriated from Hollywood with a smattering of English, Canadian and Australian film as well. Toilet Training is writerly in style and it has a narrative structure of sorts, moving through various ‘openings’ onto phobia: the fear of menses, the splitting of the mother-daughter dyad, birth, anality, hygiene, and castration, the final denouement.

Toilet Training began as a response to my research on the importance of plumbing in a history of early twentieth century art - from Marcel Duchamp to Adolf Loos. I’ve come to believe that the toilet is the icon of the twentieth century: in a body-phobic, misogynistic culture, plumbing stands in for the very bodily stuff that it allows us to flush away - the wastes and fluids we’d rather not ponder, lest we be reminded of just how porous and permeable we really are. Plumbing in the twentieth century marks a continuity with - and a shift away from - the public bath houses of the nineteenth century. The Dadaists recognized this and, in different ways, modernist architects did too. In the modern city plumbing is the interface between individual privacy and the public-ness associated with urban life. In a culture that prefers ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’, to be simultaneously public and private is anxiety producing: a public toilet, private cubicle in public space, is a contradiction in terms, discomforting and requiring its users temporarily suspend individual sovereignty.

Images of the toilet, the bathroom, the sewer and basement have come to stand-in for - and heighten - the experience of trauma in a wide range of popular film, from schlock-horror to psychological thriller to science fiction. This, to such a degree as to be naturalized and deemed unworthy of note. Yet, as can be seen in Toilet Training, this motif profoundly speaks to our culture’s fear of the body, and the feminine in particular. As we sit in the darkened collective space of the movies, this is a ‘Toilet Training’ indeed (NB: I use the word ‘toilet’ in its Anglo-Australian sense, meaning the apparatus and the room, and in the sense of its use in expressions such as ‘toilet humor’). The use of plumbing also speaks to how those psychological fears are bound up with the city itself, plumbing as the ultimate architectural uncanny.