Nobody really knows exactly what to expect when they go to The Lavatory’s museum and ball pit. No Instagram post or Yelp review can prepare one for the reality of the place. The Lavatory, which opened November 2018 with the ‘cleanest ball pit on the planet’, has recently expanded to include six immersive exhibition rooms and is the latest Valley offering in the area of interactive, experience-based art spaces.
The Lavatory is the brainchild of local landscape architect and artist, Bill Tonnesen.
Before patrons step into the building, Tonnesen, last seen sporting a cockroach bowtie, shakes the hand of each and greets them all individually with a witty, personalized comment.
Once inside, the group is led into the pit, where Tonnesen delivers a speech that is equal parts amusing and disturbing. Looking around, it was clear I wasn’t the only one in the group considering whether we had unwittingly joined a cult.
Suspense builds and finally the ‘Mega-Drop’ arrives. More than 100,000 sanitized, tennis-sized plastic balls come raining down, engulfing everyone brave enough to remain seated throughout the process.
“You’ll be buried alive, but you can breathe,” Tonnesen said.
Once they drop, the transparent balls light up with evolving neon colors and the pit bumps with club/dance music. Attendees were prancing around and posting pictures.
The museum portion of The Lavatory has less mainstream appeal. The series of meticulously-designed rooms features jumpy surprises, lots of toilets, sculptures adorned in endless detail and live humans and animals.
There seems to be social commentary offered in some of them. The most ironic of all is on display in the all-white Sugar Room, where “lifeless” parents ignore their child in favor of screens.
“When people talk about [experiential art spaces] in a pejorative sense, they call them Instagram factories,” Tonnesen said.
Tonnesen is a talented and enthusiastic photographer, constantly scanning his patrons for potential models.
I traveled through the exhibition rooms with Tonnesen and two college-aged patrons, Molly Ryerse and Tyler Brooks. Going in, Brooks and Ryerse knew only of the ball pit and Instagram pictures, but found the museum and the artist himself to be just as enjoyable.
“I admire it so much because you can tell it’s all done by Tonnesen. His personality is everywhere,” Ryerse said.
Tonnesen bristled a bit at the question of his favorite artists.
“I think it’s very helpful to not think in terms of favorites or ‘like.’ A shrewder approach is not to say ‘Do I like that?’ but rather, ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘What’s interesting?’” Tonnesen said.
Patrons might visit The Lavatory for a multitude of reasons – whether it be the Infinity Room, Mona Lisa Gallery, Rest Room or Sugar Room. It’s possible you might come out feeling like a completely different person, which is exactly what Tonnesen is going for.
4700 N. 12th St., Phoenix, 85014
Sunday – Thursday
7 p.m.-9 p.m.
Friday – Saturday
7 p.m.-10 p.m.
Admission: $25 for museum and pit,
$25 for Mega-Drop only; $40 for combination. Ages 5 and up.
For more: Lavatoryphx.com