From Venice to New York, the world has no shortage of art biennales and triennales. But Oita, a medium-sized manufacturing city in the southwest of Japan, hopes to make its mark next summer as the host of the first Toilennale—an arts festival celebrating toilets.
The city is commissioning artists and designers to turn 12 of its public lavatories into working art installations with sculptures, murals, and interactive displays. Theatrical performances will be staged inside some of the bathrooms (in stores and public spaces), and a collection of toilets created by outsider artists will be exhibited throughout downtown. For souvenirs, the city plans to sell tiny replicas of “Fountain,” Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal readymade.
Public bathrooms (often dreaded by tourists) are an unusual municipal selling point, but Eisuke Sato, who sits on the Oita Toilennale Executive Committee, says they were a logical place to look as the city council seeks to boost tourism. Toilets hold a special place (paywall) in modern Japanese life; three-quarters of homes (paywall) are outfitted with high-tech bidet-style models. The country’s largest toilet manufacturer, Toto, has a factory in Oita. And avant-garde public bathrooms have recently been popping up around the country, including one in Oita’s Wakakusa Park that became a local attraction after a pair of video artists gave it an interactive display.
“The purpose of this festival is to make Oita’s downtown like a museum of modern and marginal art, and to provide visitors with the opportunity to become familiar with Oita through art and bathrooms,” Sato tells Quartz.
There’s a certain logic to connecting toilets and art. Both, Sato points out, are central to human civilization (and indeed, the fact that 35% of the world’s population lacks access to safe, clean toilets is an economic as well as a public health crisis). “The bathroom is an indispensable place for anyone, no matter how technology and the information age advance,” Sato says. “Arts and culture are the same, in a way. They are essential in order to have a life as a human being, not as an animal.”
Tourism is the main focus of the art exhibit, but the Toilennale also promises to improve city services by renovating and beautifying bathrooms throughout downtown, beyond the 12 being turned into installations. The Toilennale, which Sato estimates will cost the local government 70 million yen ($687,000), is part of a series of initiatives aimed at repositioning Oita as more than just an industrial city. A new 20-billion-yen ($196 million) train station and commercial complex is scheduled to open in the spring of 2015, as is the Oita Prefectural Art Museum, which was designed by Shigeru Ban, who won this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Ahead of promoting the Toilennale, the city council researched Oita’s past in search of anything toilet-related. “We were hoping to find an ancient ruin of the first Western-style bathroom in Japan, but there is no such ruin in Oita,” Sato says. “It would be classic if there was.”