by Amish Morrell
The concept of a WET issue emerged as a way to elicit both artwork and criticism that deviates from a tendency in contemporary art towards practices that are intellectually abstract, often highly frenetic, and detached from physical places and bodily experiences. Particularly in press releases and artist statements, work is often described as taking on social, economic or ideological forces at a global scale, with artists or curators citing a myriad of textual and theoretical references that may not be apparent in the work itself. Many of us might only encounter art in a pristine gallery setting, or primarily through writing and documentation; thus the ways in which an artwork translates into information and the specific ways it is institutionally legitimated are highly dependent on the work’s settings and descriptions. This, of course, excludes a vast range of practices that are more tactile, sensory and experiential. C Magazine has often been concerned with critiquing and countering dominant tendencies in contemporary art, and we continue this critique through the WET issue, using the concept of “wetness” to describe aesthetic experiences that are fluid, immersive and bodily, and which invoke a sense of the porous relationships we have with the spaces around us.
The WET issue is also an exercise in shifting how we understand the parameters of contemporary art and criticism. In the past, I’ve emphasized that C Magazine is not about art personalities or “art news,” but about critically understanding the contexts of contemporary art, such as language, culture, ideas, institutions, communities and economies. But a context doesn’t have to be so abstract. It can also be an ecosystem, the atmosphere, or the space of a sauna or cold pool. Shifting our understanding of context in such a seemingly direct manner, requires an entirely different mode of presence and receptivity that is attuned to the body and its engagement with other people and the spaces around it.
The concept for this issue also arose from the immediate experience of visiting saunas, baths and swimming places with artists, and seeing these as sites of aesthetic experience and public life, spaces of both relaxation and conviviality. Interestingly, there is a history of conceptualizing bathing as an aesthetic practice, and numerous contemporary artists have incorporated it into their work. Exploring this at length was Wet Magazine, published in California during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s by Leonard Koren. Self-described as “The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing,” Wet offered much more than its title suggests, providing a vivid reflection of artist and punk cultures and becoming a vanguard of New Wave design. Koren, who also wrote books including Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (Imperfect Publishing, 2008), and Undesigning the Bath (Stone Bridge, 1998), eschewed architect-designed spaces in favour of simple, elemental bathing environments such as springs, tidal pools and mud baths. While Wet Magazine was more hedonistic and heterosexual than C Magazine, these magazines have definite similarities in that they both reflect a style and vision that has often been risk-taking, idiosyncratic, and socially promiscuous, demonstrating their characteristic roles as cultural and countercultural intermediaries.
I’d like to also argue that WET is a directive to use the body as a vehicle or instrument for the investigation of sensory experience, a process during which we recognize and engage the proximity and porosity of skin and atmosphere. This directive can involve the application of various materials and conditions to the body: heat, steam, leaves, stones, cold water, or an alteration of gravity, thereby constituting a form of inductive research that helps us understand what these forces and actions might do to us.
WET is also a practice of cultural inquiry. For more than a decade, I’ve been informally investigating sauna cultures and rituals, visiting traditional Russian saunas in places from Moscow to Mississauga, where people go to conduct business or to sweat out hangovers, as well as German, Korean and Finnish saunas, hidden away in sleepy industrial plazas or in people’s backyards. Learning about the global diversity of bathing practices, and the existence of a literature on bathing culture, I became attuned to places along back roads in the country–side where one might have a quick bath before arriving at a party, or to refuges alongside rivers that teenagers inhabit, building fires or constructing rope swings over the water. The acts of finding respite in a cold brook or taking a sauna among friends or strangers are openings into the ecology and social life of a place, a way of getting to know it through one’s senses, of engaging in and inventing ritual and community.
While some of the pieces in this issue are distinctly about bathing, such as Christie Pearson’s interview with Leonard Koren, Noa Bronstein’s essay about Olivia Boudreau’s translation of the contemplative space of the bath into video installation, or artist Peter Morin’s three stories about taking cold water baths, other pieces explore the issue’s theme in more oblique ways. Jen Hutton revisits Ed Ruscha’s liquid paintings from the ‘60s, exploring the fluid quality of this series as she moves back and forth between physical enunciation and painted depiction. Wetness can also imply leakage, either from arousal or because something is uncontained and possibly dangerous. Invoking this latter definition, Allyson Mitchell addresses the complicated, often messy debates around queer identity and feminist politics, writing a public response to a letter by an arts reporter who took her installation Killjoy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted House a little too literally. Also pressing the boundaries of social acceptability — but instead playing on stereotypes of straight female desire — the artist Dayna McLeod dressed entirely in animal print fabrics for a year as part of her Cougar for a Year project, observing people’s reactions to her presence as a queer, not yet middle–aged woman. In this issue, the critic RM Vaughan writes about this playful and critical artwork in his essay “Women Who Run (Off to the side of) the Wolves.”
We also invited readers and contributors to send us photographs of “wet places,” which we have published as a feature project. These include everything from mud spas to wading pools and places where one might cruise for sex, as well as a tiny Icelandic hot pool where people have been baptized since the 10th century. One can still bathe in this ancient geothermal pool. If there’s an image you’d like to share with C’s readers, send it along. We’ll be publishing more photographs of wet places on our Tumblr site after this issue goes to press.
I hope that this issue might give you some ideas for appreciating the relationship between the body and its surroundings, for making art that is physically engaged and multi-sensory, critical and playful, and not strictly detached, abstract and cerebral. Or, that it might simply give you more ideas for living in this way.