Louisa Thomsen Brits explores the art of bathing through the lens of the American artist and writer, Leonard Koren....
Casting off our clothes under a blanket of stars, we stepped naked into a steaming bath. Light-hearted, light-headed and freed from of our habitual cloak of self-consciousness, cradled between the fire and the immeasurable night sky, we lay perfectly still to ease tired muscles, to soak and dream.
After a week revelling at AfrikaBurn (South Africa's version of the famous US festival, Burning Man) in the arid semi-desert of the Tankwa Karoo, costumed in feathers, sequins and desert dust, we had come to a low, white farmhouse beside the sea to shed our skins completely.
We had lived, for a handful of days, in an intuitive, poetic, open-minded manner, joyful and free. Building a fire and drawing our bath together had brought the experience to a human scale. The fragile flames of our lanterns flickered in warm wind. We felt both infinitesimal and infinite. Wholly ourselves. Wholeheartedly liberated.
In his book, Undesigning the Bath, Leonard Koren defines his ideal bathing environment as, '... simply, or rather not-so-simply, a place that helps bring my fundamental sense of who I am into focus. A place that awakens me to my intrinsic earthy, sensual, and paganly reverential nature. A quiet place to enjoy one of life's finest desserts amidst elemental surroundings. A profoundly personal place, even when shared with other people, suitable for the most intimate sacraments of bathing...'
During the late 70's and early 80's, Koren produced an archly-titled avant-garde magazine, WET, that espoused a post-hippie philosophy of pleasure-taking, silliness, sensuality and play. At that time, Koren lived in Venice Beach, California where ideals of radical self-expression, runaway eclecticism and creativity flourished. Like our community at AfrikaBurn, Koren was interested in harnessing creative energy to the highest purpose of the moment. California was the capital of the invented, decorated, improved self. He decided that 'when costumes become this powerful and this confusing, people begin to need improved ways of taking their costumes off.'
Bathing strips us back to the essence of being and exposes us to the egality of nakedness, our own fluid nature and the neutrality of water. When you bathe, said Koren, 'You get exposed to and touched all over by the same stuff you're mostly made of. Water doesn't recognize any one spot as prettier or sexier than any other. Water wants it all.' He spoke of the key ingredient for bathing as, 'not equipment but attitude.'
The basic tenets of WET's philosophy of bathing were:
'Water, steam, air, and mud and the energy to heat them are precious resources to be cherished and conserved.
Cleanliness is next to impossible (but keep trying anyway).
Nakedness is almost always an excellent idea.
In addition to all its other charms, bathing is an accommodating metaphor.'
Nothing was taken too seriously. WET was 'a parody of enthusiasms taken a bit too far', an embrace of the sensual and absurd. Pleasure was its own excuse.
As an undergraduate Koren visited Esalen Institute near the centre of the rugged Big Sur coastline where, since the early sixties, the curious and spiritual have gathered to explore the parameters of human possibility and savour life on the edge in the mineral hot springs that overlook the Pacific Ocean and nourish contemplation, conversation and community. One afternoon in early December, I leant against the wooden rails of the terrace above the baths at Esalen cut into the jagged cliffs far below. Steam rose from the springs, mingling with sea mist and salt-scented air. I wondered if I could muster sufficient courage to be naked with the complete strangers enjoying the ritual of bathing. Eventually, in the discrete and muted light of early evening glancing off concrete and sandstone, I released my reticence and fragile identity to the warm water, steam, pine trees, rocks, and monarch butterflies collecting in the woods beyond. It was a surreal, sacred, earthy, sage and sulphur-scented moment. The sound of the surf soon soothed me to somnolence.
Communal, outdoor bathing doesn't require the self-conscious myth-making or unquestioning self-confidence associated with the era of Leonard Koren's magazine. It's a constellation of elements and awareness, a way of cultivating an accordance with nature and with spirit; a way of enjoying the world.
A bath is a place for cleansing, relaxation and renewal, a place that resonates with our basic needs and lifts us beyond ourselves. We can invite transcendental experience into our own bathrooms. Koren insists, 'Bathrooms are everywhere... And every bathroom, no matter how crude or sophisticated, comes equipped with all the elements of primal poetry:
'Water and/or steam.
Hot, cold, and in between.
We thrive on an appreciation of small daily rituals as a source of strength, and the simple alchemy of bathing that turns us back into our selves. As Leonard Koren says, 'There's an appetite for nakedness .. the nakedness that abets simplicity of spirit, that lets the body pass by itself through the awakening and regenerating extremes of hot and cold, light and dark, wet and dry, that the natural environment is so kind to provide.'
Words by Louisa Thomsen Brits. Shop our Bathroom collection.