Hygiene and Social Life in ‘Body. Gaze. Power. A Cultural History of the Bath’ at Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden

by Jacob Zhicheng Zhang // Apr. 10, 2020

It is not surprising to learn that Baden-Baden—a German resort town famous for its 19th century bathhouses and so-called Kurhäuser—has sponsored an exhibition on representations of bathing culture. The exhibition fittingly sees bathing as “a global social practice” with links that “go far beyond issues of hygiene, health, or a sense of well-being.” Given the broad and perhaps inexhaustible scope of the exhibition (one that presents contemporary artworks as well as historical materials from Greece, Japan, France and beyond), it’s helpful to understand the exhibition through the nexus between sociality and health, a connection that has upheld Baden-Baden to this date.

Paul Chan’s unabashedly colorful ‘Bathers’ is placed prominently in the main hall of the Kunsthalle. The headless ‘Bathers’ undulate carelessly while the industrial fans underneath them blow air into their hollow insides, reminding us of rich socialites alternating between pools and roulette tables. In a conversation with Mousse, Chan acknowledges that the ‘Bathers’ reference both cleanliness and recreation. Coincidentally, bathing as a leisurely maintenance of hygiene seems to be the underlying premise of the exhibition, as it is revealed by the congregation surrounding ‘Bathers,’ composed of a strigil (an Ancient Greek and Roman tool for the cleansing of the body by scraping off dirt, perspiration and oil that was applied before bathing), Greek pottery vessels decorated with bathing scenes and prints and drawings of the Baths of Caracalla. Chan’s enthusiastically vacillating figures collide into one another, their saturated colors making them look beach-appropriate and distancing them from the context of purely hygienic pursuits.

As if to tether the understanding of bathing back to cleansing, bathhouses are installed virtually in the space. Touching on topics including beauty and gender, Katarzyna Kozyra’s illicit video recordings made inside bathhouses remain visually concentrated on acts of cleansing. Echoing her successful installation ‘Bathhouse’ (1997)—which documents women showering and socialising together—Kozyra filmed a second piece, ‘The Men’s Bathhouse,’ disguised as a man, two years later. The exhibition in Baden-Baden shows both of these works, inviting the audience to act as an anthropologist while navigating two black-box installations that feature deadpan footage of the bathhouses. Yet, the black boxes have produced an environment so perfect for inadvertent voyeurism that the physical and intimate acts of washing often overtake sociality in the attention economy.

In addition to the Kunsthalle, the exhibition also appears at a few other sites. The Stadtmuseum, which normally focuses on the history of the resort town, has taken up an immersive bathing VR installation by Bianca Kennedy and a whole section dedicated to the swimming pool. Slim Aarons’ photographs of posh swimming pools in California and the American Southwest offer a reverse reflection of Michal Martychowiec’s neon signs, installed nearby, that read “What do you desire?” and “How far can you see?”; the reversed questions seem to rhetorically poke fun at endeavors of relaxing in pools located next to deserts and seas. As if to create contrast with Aarons’s wholesome subjects and insinuate their questionable ethics, a group of photographs from the Dachau concentration camp are placed next to the images. The pool there was used as both a Nazi propaganda prop and a tool for deadly hypothermia experiments. Pools also appear, in the exhibition, to be full of false promises that lead to superficial social links and potentially even death, as the photograph of an empty pool on the Titanic presented near the entrance also suggests.

Disused and semi-public places—such as a balneological room of the famed 19th century bathhouse Friedrichsbad and the garden of the worldly Brenners Park Hotel—are also enlisted for the purpose of exhibiting artworks, inviting viewers to venture beyond the confines of the town’s museums. This expansion could certainly be seen as a Baden-Baden version of the post-institutional trend, ironically steered by museums, but one could also observe the additional connotations bestowed onto artworks by this act. At both the Friedrichsbad and the hotel, the artist duo Daniel Dewar & Grégory Gicquel presents bath-themed works; one of the works uses marble marquetry and the other is carved directly from a marble block. Bodies in incomplete views and dismembered parts are rendered figuratively using classical techniques of marquetry and sculpture. They substitute for the now-missing resort visitors (or exhibition-goers), reminding one of the social atmosphere inherent to the venues despite their currently unpopulated state.

The exhibition marks a collaboration between the Kunsthalle and the Mucem in Marseille. Unfortunately, both museums are currently closed. At a time when offline sociality is at odds with physical health, the crowd-attracting and allegedly ailment-curing thermal water would be a last recourse to embrace. Migrating our connections online seems like the only way out, but the exhibition reminds us that those surveilled and incorporated platforms might lack the spontaneity and openness of venues such as bathhouses, spas, beaches and pools.

Exhibition Info

Group Show: ‘Body. Gaze. Power. A Cultural History of the Bath’
Exhibition: Mar. 07 – June 21, 2020; Currently Closed
Lichtentaler Allee 8 a, 76530 Baden-Baden, click here for map

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