Visual Culture
How Cult Magazine Toiletpaper Became a Surreal Sensation
Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

A gun drops in the toilet. A woman reclines next to a gigantic lobster. People are accosted by food: A couch is buried under spaghetti; a man is force-fed Corn Flakes. These images—and countless others, rendered with hyper-saturated color and a deranged sense of humor—are par for the course for Toiletpaper, an 8-year-old publishing project spearheaded by internationally renowned artist and photographer .
“Maurizio is coming from the art world, and I’m coming from the advertising and fashion world,” Ferrari said over Skype from his studio in Milan. “We wanted to find a space that could be outside of those worlds…a space to be free.” Indeed, it’s this eclectic mix of backgrounds that has made Toiletpaper so thrilling. Both of its founders are at the top of their respective games: Ferrari has an enviable portfolio of clips for the likes of Vogue and Wallpaper*; Cattelan went into so-called “retirement” following a splashy 2011 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, yet has always kept himself on the art world’s radar—most recently by moonlighting as a curator for a massive new show in Shanghai.
Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

Distributed twice a year as a text-free magazine (the 17th issue is due to publish this winter), Toiletpaper has hit upon an effective formula for success: marshall the look, logic, and production value of commercial advertising, but put it toward absurd and happily pointless ends. Toiletpaper takes the common tropes of things like food photography and high fashion, and pushes them to extremes. The result is a swirling constellation of images that are as tempting and satisfying as candy.
Each issue of Toiletpaper requires a vast crew of collaborators; a typical masthead might credit contributions from antique furniture experts and animal trainers, in addition to the expected set-designers and make-up artists. The venture is akin to “a big, mostly Italian family,” Cattelan explained, “and Pierpaolo and I are like the parents.” That pleasantly dysfunctional family is responsible for an instantly recognizable aesthetic that conjures the oddity of the 21st century.
Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

Ferrari described how a typical Toiletpaper image comes about, beginning with rough sketches or simple ideas bounced between himself and Cattelan. By way of example, Ferrari showed me some representative drawings—heads exploding into nuclear mushroom clouds, or men being kicked in the groin.
These lo-fi inspirations are translated into incredibly slick photographs during intensive studio sessions; each issue of Toiletpaper takes between 5 and 10 days to complete. The goal, Ferrari said, is a “re-elaboration of what you see every day,” but “seeing it again in a surprising way.” Their creative process can be appropriately surreal, as he described: “It’s a bag, then you make a hole, you put a cat inside….”
Animals have, indeed, been prominent in the studio. In one image, a gang of snakes writhe atop a sculptural assortment of cymbals. (“They were moving and often escaping from the set,” Ferrari recalled. “All the girls were screaming.”) In another, an assortment of kittens, ducklings, and one smirking Chihuahua pose inside antique food containers. “We love animals as much as we love humans,” he said. “It’s always a challenge because you don’t know how it will end. We have a very devoted animal trainer.”
Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

Humans might be more predictable, but the challenge is finding models who are willing to take chances. The content is bizarre, unnerving, and even ugly at times. One Toiletpaper cover features a model wearing lush red lipstick, her mouth open to reveal the word “SHIT” written across her front teeth. Ferrari and Cattelan often use bodies to make visual jokes: a man tied to the floor with colorful neckties; an old man stoically “urinating” in a great arc, with a tiny wine cork protruding from his pants instead of the expected anatomy. Images can be goofy—a fried egg, toast, and bacon nailed to a tablecloth—or deeply uncomfortable, loaded with psychosexual tension.
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Like advertising, Toiletpaper is seductive and sensual; it wants to be wanted. And that’s the trick that makes flipping through an issue both exhilarating and upsetting—a bit like taking a long drink of what you think is water, only to realize, too late, that it’s milk. The magazine’s polished look sets the brain up to expect something like an Hermès ad, or a spread from Vogue; instead, what we get is a woman putting a cigarette out on her own bejeweled hand, or a nude man reclining on a green velour couch, covered in cats.
The sheer, enormous range of what can end up in the magazine’s pages is what has kept it exciting. Commercial photographers are often typecast into their own niche specialty, but for Cattelan and Ferrari, Toiletpaper is the exact opposite of a creative rut. “We need the challenge, we need to fail,” Ferrari explained. “And okay, sometimes you can make a mistake—but most of the time, you come out with something that’s really outstanding.”
Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

Courtesy of Toiletpaper Magazine.

Meanwhile, Toiletpaper continues to evolve. It has grown to include a range of collectable products—furniture, clothing, tableware, an LED lamp shaped like a cat—and even entire environments, like one staged at Art Basel in Miami Beach in 2016. Toiletpaper is more than just a liberating, creative space for Ferrari and Cattelan to flex their quirky muscles and entertain oddball ideas. It’s become a cultural force in its own right, one that is often imitated—if not ripped off wholesale—by brands eager to wade into weirder waters. Interestingly, Toiletpaper’s success as an art project has led to advertising partnerships in the real world, from the likes of Kenzo and OKCupid, as well as cover commissions for the New York Times Magazine and other publications.
Toiletpaper forces its disparate fans to cross the aisle—asking fashion audiences to be okay with a little surreality, and coaxing art audiences out of their own, often self-serious bubble. The result is a rare combination of the silly and serious, the conceptual and the flat-out entertaining. And the project doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, with ambitions that are positively cosmic. “We hope,” Cattelan said, “to see Toiletpaper images in outer space someday.”
Scott Indrisek is Artsy’s Deputy Editor.