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.