“Nightmare Bathroom” illustrates how entangled imperial trade routes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries precipitated sanitary anxieties and influenced modern plumbing design at the turn of the twentieth century. These “technologies of separation and concealment” have facilitated the governance of sex, race, degrees of ability, and gender within the bathroom. The collection of works on view, and their interconnectivity, not only suggest the literal plumbing of a bathroom but also multiple parallels between the control and circulation of goods, labor, and bodies and, ultimately, the control and circulation of dirt, piss, and shit.
This exhibition takes its name from Robin Schiff’s Nightmare Bathroom, one of three bathroom installations that were created for the seminal Womanhouse exhibition which occurred fifty years ago in 1972. Organized by artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, who had earlier founded the Feminist Art Program at CalArts, this exhibition contained the work of over twenty of their female students in various rooms and corridors of a house at 533 Mariposa Ave. Composed entirely of loose pink and white sand, Schiff’s Nightmare Bathroom portrayed a reclining woman in a tub, with a snake painted on the bathroom’s tile floor and a black bird hung over the tub. The bathroom’s vanity cabinet was filled with glass toiletry bottles and vessels, which were themselves filled with different colors of sand. “Even though the bathroom can be a refuge and a private place, I have always been afraid there. It is not a rational fear. It may stem from the fear I had in childhood of being sucked down the drain with the water, the ritual of confronting my nakedness, staring at my face in the mirror, the fear of being intruded upon. I wanted to convey the idea of vulnerability,” the artist stated as she later reflected on the work.
Several attempts were made to contact Schiff in order to obtain permission to use the name of her piece for this exhibition, as well as images of her piece for promotional material. In a recent and extremely thorough exhibition at Anat Ebgi Gallery in Los Angeles marking the fifty-year anniversary of Womanhouse, efforts made by curator Stefano di Paola also proved unsuccessful. “She was one of the very few people that were absolutely unfindable. I’d asked almost every participant of Womanhouse that I knew and met and no one kept her contact information or knew where she was. The other impossible find was Sandy Orgel who did the Linen Closet.” In response to my inquiry, Judy Chicago’s studio replied similarly. “…we reached out to a few Womanhouse participants and unfortunately, none of the people whose contact information we have are currently in contact with Robbin [sic] Schiff… We did hear that she now lives on the east coast and works in graphic design, I hope this information helps.” In a conversation with Judy Chicago for Interview Magazine in 2017, Gloria Steinem recalled that “there was a sign saying, ‘Please don’t touch the sand,’ which made it irresistible… Once you touched the sand, nothing could remove the mark you made.” By the end of the exhibition, the body in Schiff’s sculpture was completely eroded away by visitor’s fingerprints.