For close to 15 years, Robar has been battling the village over a display of toilets and urinals filled with bright flowers he erected on three of his properties as a protest against zoning rules over a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise he planned to open.
Over that time, the village has battled for the removal of Robar’s Potty Gardens, claiming they contravene a “junk storage” ordinance that prohibits “the deposit, accumulation or maintenance of junk material”.
In that latest legal effort, the village ordered Robar, 79, to remove the offending porcelain or face their removal by village authorities. Robar’s lawyers meanwhile have filed for a temporary restraining order.
At issue, is whether the Potty Gardens should be granted first amendment protections as political protest and as artistic free expression.
Robar’s filing claims the junk storage law was adopted by the village in retaliation of his political speech and artistic expression. It names the village board of Potsdam, Mayor Ron Tischler and other village officials as defendants.
“Mr Robar is an artist whose artistic medium repurposed toilets is controversial,” the complaint says, and claims his work has been “celebrated for its artistic value and political message, including in newspaper articles and documentaries”.
In addition to the work’s inherent artistic value, the complaint continues, “Mr Robar’s work is political speech, designed to express a message of protest and to represent free expression”.
“Mr Robar’s art started as a political protest but it has expanded now into artistic expression. He still values the political protest nature of the art but it’s evolved into one of artistic expression in his hometown,” Robar’s attorney, Jon Crain, told the Guardian.
But that’s not how Potsdam’s village board sees it. At a public hearing on 29 June, David Acker, the CEO of St Lawrence health system, claimed the installation was such an eyesore that it threatened the ability of the Potsdam hospital to recruit staff.
“This is not simply about toilets,” Acker continued. “This about a a broader issue of do we care enough to enforce our codes,” said. He argued for the natural beauty of the village and its architecture. “Is this a joke, or a source of pride?”
Potsdam resident Susan Powers said village administrators respect freedom of expression but “had negatively-influenced opinions of the community”.
“These displays do not reflect Potsdam’s true character as a tight-knit community that cares about its residents, businesses, cultural opportunities, institutions, students and visitors,” Powers added.
Toilet art, however, has unexpectedly deep roots. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp displayed a readymade sculpture, Fountain, consisting of a porcelain urinal in New York that is considered the first salvo of the avant garde movement.
More recently, in 2016, Maurizio Cattelan, produced America, a fully functioning toilet made of 18-karat solid gold he once offered to Donald Trump. Unlike Potty Gardens, Cattelan’s toilet masterpiece was a major hit with critics.
“I consider it to be a modern masterpiece that touches on timely social and political ideas while also speaking to a universal humanity,” said Michael Frahm, the director of Blenheim Art Foundation, where the piece was exhibited on loan from the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum before being stolen by thieves.
Whether Hank Robar and his toilet gardens receive free-speech protection is now under the purview of the federal court system. His 15-year dispute with the village of Potsdam is far from complete – indeed he appears to be planning to add more items to his installations in keeping, he claims, with local traditions.
“Lawns and porches throughout the North Country – and the Village of Potsdam specifically – are adorned with repurposed milk jugs into painted planters, repurposed tires (also transformed into planters), repurposed beer kegs and other repurposed lawn decorations,” the complaint says.
• This article was amended on 7 September 2020 because Potsdam is in the state of New York, not New Hampshire as an earlier version said.