Joanna Karolini: The bath is hot

Joanna Karolini: Drinking the waters , 2006 (Kilcullen’s Seaweed Baths) colour photograph 100 x 60 cm (approx); courtesy the artist

“The bath is hot” is a Polish idiom equivalent to “being in hot water.” It is a trespass of a norm. Joanna Karolini placed a fully functioning sauna (outside surface made from recycled wood) in Catalyst Arts, with the intention to alter a habitual attitude towards art galleries – ie, it is elitist, it is not for me. A sauna in a gallery is an anxious object; it has an ambiguous status, which means that the art can at any moment cease to be art, a shift against which art has no power to object.

The two hundred or so visitors to the sauna left no clear answer beyond their enjoyment of free cleansing and fun, ie, they valued the experience. They commented on a “luxurious moment,” they felt “relaxed and healthy,” they felt “different” on leaving the art gallery, and they hoped that the sauna would make Karolini a “popular artist.” I have no difficulty in thinking of their responses as signalling aesthetic experiences, but I am unsure whether the experiences altered their views of art.

The imposed assumption that the sauna-in-art-gallery will both enclose and process the participants, and thus evoke a unique configuration of sensual perceptions, connects Karolini’s art practice to a theory worked out by Marshall McLuhan in his Counter blast (p. 41). Forcing to the surface of consciousness some silent structural rules of art, by extending a particular sense, is expected to alter the way people perceive the world. Karolini could have installed the sauna on its own in a rehearsal of Duchamp’s Fountain . Her intention to change the configuration of sensual perceptions would have justified that. Her opposition to disinterested art forbade it. Instead, she chose a softer approach, installing two videos and several images scanned from her films and some digital photographs taken in Kilcullen Seaweed Baths, Victoria Baths, Manchester, and the Bath House in Enniscrone. By this she forged an analogy between video and photography as art and the sauna as art.

The ‘hut’ has been famously emancipated as an art object by Tracey Emin: The Last thing I said to you is don’t leave me here (1999) defined her art as confessional. The winner of the 2005 Turner Prize, Simon Starling, called his Shed boat- shed a physical manifestation of thought process. The straw walls and plastic roof of Glenn Loughran’s Hedge school (2006) housed the engaged community for eight weeks ( ).

The proposal that creative freedom is a worthwhile public value, in the way in which art evokes a constant emergency for the senses, is worth repeating. It seems to be proposing “Live Art, Love Life.” Karolini’s taking on the non-fictional character of the sauna is ambitious because it calls both for skills she has to learn and for courage to present it as art. It is interesting as it connects to Plato (ideas – objects – representation of objects), to Aristotle (kallos kai agathos; cleansing – catharsis) and to anti-norm processes in art. It is dangerous because it has the power to alienate the public while being publicly funded.

Joanna Karolini: Sauna (interior & exterior), 2007 built with the help of Lawrence Street Workshop, 2.4 x 2.4 x 2.2 metres, built in 20 sections, flatpack; outside: recycled pallets; inside: ceiling – Canadian cedar, walls – spruce, benches – Obecia, frame – white wood; insulation: Kingspan; stove: household oil-heater; combustion chamber; barrel to hold granite stones around combustion chamber; enjoyed best at 90 degrees Celsius; courtesy the artist

Sauna (interior), 2007; courtesy the artist

Joanna Karolini: Seaweed sea, 2007 DVD still (Kilcullen’s Seaweed Baths), continous loop; courtesy the artist

Karolini offers a ground for reflection: we know what is worth having, but we don’t always feel its importance. By stealth, through sensual pleasure, she confirms that it is impossible to establish once for all what is, or is not, art (see, eg, Mukarovsky, 1936).

Slavka Sverakova is a writer on art.

Joanna Karolini: Coathangers , 2004 Victoria Baths, Manchester, photograph, 90 x 55 cm (approx); courtesy the artist

Reprinted from Circa 120, Summer Issue 2007, pp. 69 - 71