Saunas aren’t very sociable places. People tend to sit and sweat in silence. But put a sauna in the middle of an art gallery and you get a very different vibe.
In fact, it’s nothing short of a party inside the unusual sauna that forms the centerpiece of Los Angeles-based artist Michael Parker’s Steam Work, an interactive installation currently on display at Southern Exposure in San Francisco.
Don your swimsuit and crawl in through a hole in the bottom of the massive, mirror-tiled, egg-shaped construction, whereupon friendly strangers are likely to be on hand to help you up onto a narrow ledge. There you will sit -- the hot, dark space holds up to eight people perched in close quarters -- chatting and schvitzing to your heart’s content before your new buddies help you get out again so you can cool off.
But you don’t have to get undressed and sweaty to feel immersed in Parker’s playful yet thoughtful installation. There’s a lot to be said of experiencing the piece from any part of the gallery’s space, fully clothed.
Grab one of dozens of cups from shelves scattered along the walls and help yourself to cooling water; watch rivulets of the same cascading from a reservoir down a series of MacGyver-like slides above your head; contemplate the sanity of the occasional intrepid sauna-goer sploshing about in a cold plunge tub after getting very hot. Besides the fully-functional Steam Egg 2, which the artist built from scrap industrial parts that he found near his studio, most of the rest of the intricate pieces (the cups, the slides, even the big cold plunge baths) are fashioned by hand from gleamingly glazed, roughly hewn clay.
On Saturday nights during the show’s run (the sauna is also in operation on Thursdays) Southern Exposure adds an olfactory element to the experience. There’s a resident “Herb J” on hand (like a DJ who tickles not your ears but rather your nostrils) to mix various oils into the steam. So when you’re sitting inside the sauna’s dark, round enclave, scents of fir, grapefruit or sandalwood might waft across your conscience.
The image of all those almost-naked people climbing in and out of a hot, giant egg is a powerful one, especially with spring in the air of San Francisco right now. It’s a time of rebirth. But then there’s the reality of growing old, a reality that Parker's wonderment-filled art draws into sharp relief. Who hasn’t experienced a moment in their life when they wish they could crawl back into the womb? If it weren’t so hot and sweaty in there, I for one would never want to leave.