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MARGARET MORGAN

by Jody Zellen

(The Living Room, Santa Monica) For her new exhibition, titled Century, Margaret Morgan has selected 100 images from her archive. These photographs are arranged in a grid. Each photograph has been cropped to the same size rectangle and surrounded by a white mat and silver frame that echoes the polished chrome of bathroom fixtures. The photographs to have been casually, almost randomly shot. Using whatever film happened to be in her camera, Morgan would take a picture of the restroom without paying attention to light or color balance. Some of the images have a blue cast, others are a mild sepia tone. Making use of these color shifts to her advantage, Morgan arranges her grid of bathroom fixtures according to the color cast of the image. The large grid moves from a yellowy tone to a greenish blue as one's eye moves across the piece. The off-color enhances the "ugly" nature of the image. They are, after all, photographs of toilets and urinals, bidets and sinks.

"Century" (detail),
C-Print, 10 x 8", 1998.


Each image depicts an interior space. A private place in a public institution. The bathrooms are selected from cafes, museums, schools, factories and even airplanes. Some are men's, others are women's. Some have single stalls, others have many. Morgan has not set up a systematic way of photographing her subject, only in presenting it. Unlike the Bechers, whose black and white images of water towers are all shot in the same lighting conditions from the same distance and point of view, Morgan shoots her subject from all angles. To compare and contrast is unavoidable. How many urinals are within the grid? How many bidets? How many bathrooms have white square tiles? In how many pictures is the seat up? It is striking how clean and sterile these public places appeared to be, contradicting any preconceived notion of the filthy public restroom.

Morgan points her camera up as well as down. She photographs mirrors and reflections. Some of the images focus on the cleaning supplies or the ducts and pipes that carry the waste away. But most are straight on shots of either just the toilet bowl or the sink or the room that contains them. When looking at these pictures we become hyper-aware of the plumbing system. Where does the waste go? Who engineered this feat? Oh the wonder of it!

"Century" (detail),
nine C-Prints, 1998.

Morgan depicts these bathrooms as small private places. Yet her images are not claustrophobic. One is drawn to the details of the basin, the color of the water, the shape of the bowl. Are they American? Australian? European? Yet Century is about more than the depiction of public restrooms. Close as we are to the new millenium, it is appropriate to acknowledge the past. Morgan pays homage to Duchamp's urinal, his Fountain of 1917. She is interested in the idea of a ready-made, and in the presentation of something that is usually overlooked. The choice of the bathroom is consistent with her other work--and perhaps her interest in plumbing. She can explore issues of class and gender, while making images of a place that people visit daily without their giving an second thought to its history or impact on culture.

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