The City Is A Sewer

Callum Morton

catalogue essay (edited) for FACE UP - Contemporary Australian Art, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2003
unedited version reprinted in More Talk About Buildings & Mood, MCA Publications, Sydney, 2004

Playing on a television somewhere in the world is a documentary on architecture. There's probably a British voice-narration. It's probably funded by European cable companies. The Americans will buy it cheap. This British guy will undoubtedly be anthropological about architecture. He'll use some standard line about how Man lived in caves, covering its walls with his own excrement. A wry tone in his voice will marvel at how far we have progressed.

But we still live in caves. We've just renamed them homes. Some even pay architects to design their homes for them. If living in caves is making walls out of your excreta, then getting an architect to design your home is having your bum wiped for you.

Living with human waste is a basic modus of the domus. Behind every living abode is a place where that waste has to be organised: the toilet. For most, this involves a disappearing act. It's pure magic: you'll never have to clean up your own excreta, but you can still live with it. Your walls aren't made of the stuff any more, but they are signs of the invisibility of it. The most stringent council regulations are those connected to waste disposal. Your house extends its colon into the bowels of the earth and to sewerage farms far away from your domain.

Just as your discharge is jettisoned laterally away from you in the private sphere, your collective excrescence is linearly projected about you in the public sphere. Public architecture - the glowing orb of Man's sophisticated endeavour - throws itself up around you at every move in the city. Like the smell at the sewerage farm, it clouds the air. In the city centre, it blocks the sun, casts ominous shadows, and impedes all traverse. These buildings are the visibility of that which your home hides.

Such gilded gargantuans of verticality have long been associated with the phallic. Even our repressed British voice-over narrator will make such a quip. Men, women and children all marvel and mock the phallic these days, as if there is profound insight in a lazy Freudian association of an erect cock with something that stands erect. (Besides which, if buildings were actively phallic, they would be sticking out horizontally.) In the collective mind of the architectural guild, maybe architects' cocks are 30 stories big. The reality is more likely to be millimetres.

Big buildings are neither phallic nor penile - residues of a failed attempt to ascribe symbolic weight to their form. Read as morphological signage, they are best viewed as human excrement that has been piled up. High. This gravity defying feat is a testament not to Man's ingenuity, inventiveness or inspiration, but to the excessive amount of bowel movement he can induce. The public landscape is the sewerage farm you've heard so much about but never visited. The spread of tall buildings are not monuments to architects but extruded columnar charts indicating the growth of the city: the more people, the more shit, the taller the buildings. The excreta that once covered the cave walls is now ritualised into an effluvia that binds the heavens to earth in the monumental skyline of the stinking city.

Artists can be rightly accused of playing with their own stools and sludge. Grand narratives might link Prometheus to the sculptor and his clay, but the child who marvels at his own waste is closer a model for idle artistic endeavour. As architects make greater claims for their artistic discourse, and artists morph installation practice into virtual architecture, a splatter-ball battle ensues, each hurling the other's discharge back at the other. Space becomes inverted, as architects design galleries that look like magnified objet d'art from the outside, while artists toil away inside setting up art that resembles demolition zones, constructions sites and renovation schemes. Far from being a phenomenon of postmodern fusion and integration, this battle for the city within and without the museum is mostly a neurotic territorial collision. It's a spectator sport worthy of any televisual enterprise - but flicking the channel might be the best option.

Callum Morton's work plays on a different channel. Joining the regurgitative impulse of the artist, the time-consuming syndrome of the artisan, and the heroic expulsion of the architect, Callum places small but potent turds downwind in the museum. They accrue the stench of the city's prize-winning architectural edifices, intensifying their odour through essencing their form in his maximalized miniatures and transmogrified turrets. Feeling the air currents cartographically formed by the city's wind tunnels, Callum's schematics, models and installations strategically pinpoint the intersections where architectural voiding has left its mark - and where the city reveals itself as sewer.

(Dedicated to dumb humourless contemporary art curators - especially in Germany.)

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © Callum Morton.