Loo La La! It's WC gone mad in Paris

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It's not just fashion making a splash in the French capital this week. John Lichfield on a show that celebrates the art of the toilet

To pee in the street, in the 4,000 vespasiennes, or public urinals, was once a prerogative of the Parisian male. All but two of the scarcely private pissoirs have now vanished but the toilet as a public spectacle has made a triumphant return – in photographic form – to the French capital. A free, outdoor exhibition called Chiottissime! – loose translation "Bogissimo!" or, perhaps, "The Bog Picture" – is amusing, and educating, passers-by on the Boulevard de la Bastille in eastern Paris until 20 October. It brings together 46 images from 31 countries – including the work of such celebrated photographers as Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis – which illustrate some of the oddities and inequalities of one of the most urgent of human activities.

The exhibition has been organised by an unlikely sponsor of the arts, a public sewage company created 40 years ago to serve the greater Paris area, SIAAP (Syndicat interdépartemental pour l'assainissement de l'agglomération Parisienne). Although the subject is treated with humour, and with delicacy, the exhibition also seeks to make a serious point. Toilets are as much an indicator of global disparity as hunger or life-expectancy. More than 2.6 billion people have no access to proper toilets and more than one billion have no toilets at all. The images range from a ramshackle floating wooden public toilet in Bangkok to the 24-carat gold loos in the luxury shop chain owned by the Hong Kong millionaire SW Lam. Mr Lam once caused a panic on the world gold market by threatening to melt down his toilets.

Chiottissime!, an expanded version of an exhibition shown for Unicef (the UN Children's Fund) in Belgium last year, has been created by the French writer, film-maker and environmental campaigner François Cuel. "The exhibition is meant to make people smile but also to invite them to think," he told The Independent. "Access to proper toilets, and more generally to water, is a privilege denied to many people."

Beyond that, he said, he hopes it will make passers-by – and intentional visitors – consider some of the curiosities, and ironies, of "the smallest room". "Our belief, not to mince words, that shitting should be a private act is relatively new," he said. "Until the late-18th century, three or four people would happily relieve themselves together. All that changed with the prudery brought by the French Revolution and with the invention of the water closet in Britain in the 19th century."

The toilet has now become a sanctuary and a paradox, he said, "the only place that we are officially allowed to be alone ... a place to read and think, a place of refuge for bored workers or battered children and wives. In the Lebanese civil war," he continued, "the toilet was often the only place that you could avoid the flying bullets."

Mr Cuel has a taste for the surreal. One of the images he has chosen shows an elaborate toilet and washbasin standing alone, with no obvious water connection, in the middle of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Another image was posed by German photographer Gerhard Westrich, as part of a series on the home-life of superheroes. It shows Spider-Man sitting on a toilet (reading a book, of course). Another exhibit shows urinals in Iceland after the banking crisis of 2008. Photographs of the faces of senior Icelandic bankers have been placed in the firing line. The Parisian vespasienne (named after a Roman emperor who supposedly placed a tax on peeing) is not forgotten. There is a wonderful Doisneau photograph from the 1950s of five men relieving themselves, lightly screened from a jumble of people and vegetables in the old Paris wholesale market, Les Halles.

Les Halles has long gone. Only two vespasiennes survive. One of them is pictured in the exhibition, smeared in graffiti. It stands outside the Santé prison in southern Paris for the convenience of the police officers who patrol the surrounding streets day and night. The vespasiennes have been eliminated because, being male only, they were regarded as offensive and unfair to women.

They have been replaced by ugly cylinders with automatic doors which are unisex and free but always out of order. Mr Cuel, the curator of the exhibition at the Boulevard de Bastille (12th arrondissement, Métro Bastille) said this was a case of history repeating itself. The vespasiennes originally doubled as advertising billboards for theatres and music halls.

Women in the mid-19th century complained, understandably, that they could not read the listings while the pissoirs were in use. Thus was invented the "Morris column", the cylindrical entertainment billboard which survives in Paris, and many other cities, to this day.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...