In 1917, Marcel Duchamp famously presented a porcelain urinal signed with the name “R. Mutt” and titled it Fountain, but this scandalous piece was not the first time an everyday object—nor a lavatory—was the focus of an artwork. In fact, it was over 2,000 years earlier that ceramists in China created earthenware models like this one of a then-common lavatory construction: a latrine built above a pigsty. In this symbiotic relationship (and early recycling initiative), pigs consumed human waste, and then their waste was used to fertilize crops that fed a growing population.
Duchamp clearly intended to provoke with his piece, but why did artists of ancient China memorialize this seemingly mundane outhouse? One reason: burial. The Chinese had long constructed elaborate underground tombs and furnished the dead with all the necessities and luxuries of daily life. During the Han dynasty, these burial customs spread from the aristocracy to a broader middle class. Clay models such as this pigsty were included in more middle-class tombs in the hope that familiar objects would comfort the deceased.
Today these burial objects not only provide us with insight into the features of everyday life during the Han dynasty but also serve as a valuable record of historical architectural styles. The incised lines in the walls of the pigsty indicate a method of construction in which earth was shoveled between boards and beaten in successive layers to create cement-like hardness. Pretty nice digs for pigs!
You’ll find this work and other burial objects in Gallery 133.
Pigsty and Latrines, Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), 1st century B.C./A.D. China, probably Henan province. Gift of Mrs. Bertha Palmer Thorne.