The carpet directing visitors to Julie Verhoeven’s toilets at this year’s Frieze London art fair is divided into two bright stripes: pink for the men’s, blue for the ladies’. Cue much confusion with visitors following their gendered color into the "wrong" loo. “I didn’t expect this with the carpet gender-flip,” said the artist and fashion illustrator at the end of her first day performing in The Toilet Attendant… Now Wash Your Hands, her commission for this year’s Frieze Projects. “It’s created a free-for-all genderless toilet, which has been great.”
It’s an apt lead-in for a work that turns the politics of one of the fair’s more peculiar but overlooked spaces on its head. “It’s their subservient role which seems to mirror the social hierarchy of the fair that interests me,” she said. “Physically and aesthetically, I love portaloos and these are the crème-de-la-crème of portaloos. It seems such an absurd concept, crow-barred onto the side of something that attracts such wealth and pomp.”
If you only know Verhoeven through her many fashion collaborations — see her recent work with Marc Jacobs for the Spring 2017 collection — you’re in for a surprise. As an illustrator she’s famed for images of amorphous ultra-feminine creatures whose palette, make-up and wan looks variously channel 60's psychedelia, glam rock, art deco decadence and the fey eroticism of Egon Schiele’s paintings. Her art is way more risky and outré.
Inside the bathrooms you get a glorious hit of toilet humor and social commentary. The loos have been “be-jazzed”, as the artist put it, with patchwork covers sheathed in clear vinyl for the toilet seats. Sinks are decorated with vinyl stickers of cheery creatures made from human dangly bits and huge tears of white and blue — the kind of tears you can imagine stressed dealers crying here in private. “There’s a lot of wipeable vinyl, always a material I’m attracted to,” she said. “It’s a bit dodgy motel, a bit Barbara Cartland.”
A trolley is piled high with tampons, latex gloves and the stock-in-trade of every real-life toilet attendant in London’s department stores and clubs: Chubba Chops lollipops. Verhoeven and her performers play the attendants. They wear huge pantomime bonnets, black and white gingham dresses with massive frills and placards advising things like "use three to four sheets per wipe." In a lovely literalization of the toilet attendant’s role, they embroider curly velour poos, which litter the floor, suggestively with talc powder.
“Toilet attendants need more respect, money and profile than they are given,” said Verhoeven. “People behave appallingly to them.” Of her own taste of life as a toilet attendant, the artist said it both confirmed her assumptions and made the fair more bearable: “Lots of people have ignored me despite my pantomime outfit, which is what I wanted.” While for many, toilet attendant is one of the least desirable roles at a fair, for the artist "it feels rather safe and nice though to a role and purpose for being here, rather than a spare part. I feel better with a job to do.”
The art fair loo isn’t just a space that throws power structures into a harsh light though. As Verhoeven points out it’s a levelling plane, one we all visit for relief of one kind or another. “I really want this feeling of art not having to feel so precious and elitist,” she explained. “I wanted to make people think about their 'fair' manners, but really the main drive is, it’s more important to have a wee and feel better. What I really aspire to is contented, powdered, primped faces, clean hands and less angst.”