Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Byzantine Bathhouse of Joseph Cornell

My project for this summer is to transform my entire house into a single, living, inhabitable work of art. Some of you know about the Night Garden, the miniature & mystical greenhouse-cathedral I have been slowly building in my livingroom; a while back it was decided (I hesitate to say that I decided; it felt more like I was the channel for a choice not entirely my own...) that in order to make one room a working, mythic whole the entire house would have to be cultivated in the same spirit. I've been working on the endless task of covering the cardboard bones of The Night Garden with papier mache, trying to get that space finished before moving on to the rest of the house -- but I've been going a little crazy, because it's so daunting to conjure this palatial construction out of the vague resonances of my heart into reality in the first place, and much more so when it takes hours of work with a bucket of wallpaper paste just to make it sturdy enough to start painting. Which it isn't yet, because I'm tired of papier mache! I want to do something fun! (As to why I'm papier macheing with a bucket of wallpaper paste, everything I know about how to make massive magical things for cheap was discovered by stumbling upon Kim Graham's Tree Troll project. She suggested it over that horrible flour-and-water pap.)

So I sat down and thought about a quick and satisfying shift I could make in the house, something I could see. And I thought -- hell, what about the bathroom? It's tiny, after all (barely four feet square, not counting the tub) and surely easily altered into some kind of aesthetic creation. So I went and sat in there with my notebook to think through it. Just perched on the potty and thought, first of all, about paint colors. I'd been vaguely contemplating a nice green, a big pot of ferns, you know, fresh and leafy, whatever. But as I stared at the walls it seemed more and more as if every color I brushed on them with my mind was as cheerfully bland as the next, and no scheme that came to mind could do anything to shift the room from mildly pleasant functionality to art.

Now, I've seen pictures of fabulous bathrooms with hammered gold (!) walls and giant painting, bathrooms in black velvet, graffiti showcases, sleek expanses of marble. But in my opinion there is a vast difference between a well-designed (or just a designed) bathroom and a bathroom that feels like a truly beautiful space in the way that other rooms and spaces often do, and as I sat there it occurred to me that I wasn't sure if I'd ever really seen a bathroom that was more than just decorated, that felt like someone had really put thought into how they wanted the space to shape them.

I think this is because bathrooms are the places where we are closest to our body and its functions: this is the room where we shower and poop and floss, after all, and we Westerners tend to view all rituals of cleansing as distasteful.  If we are not rich, we make our bathrooms pleasantly antiseptic and aesthetically hygienic -- think of all the neutral tones, cool colors, smooth surfaces, the utterly bland spaces, as vague as possible, gently whitewashing all the earthy, sensuous, gritty contact with our dirty (literally and figuratively) naked bodies! And if we are wealthy, we order them made so ostentatiously luxurious as to completely obscure, once again, the actual body itself, this time drowned out by teak and black granite or the aforementioned hammered gold, so immersed in the thick carpet and jacuzzi tub that the realities of dirt, the small, human, hard-working body once again are vanished.

Main bath, Bath, twilight
So I thought about the act of cleansing, and the places and the cultures that placed importance on the ritual and the ceremony of the bath. Like the Turkish hammam, for example -- listen, that's a place where the body just gets to be the body, steamed, dunked, and sweated out next to other bodies without shame or distaste or overwrought anxiety about spotless surfaces. The Romans built stunning bathhouses -- I've been to the baths in Bath, and it's strange to think that nothing like that kind of elegance and attentiveness to the needs of the body could really ever have been constructed in this country except by those emigrating from other places where the rituals of purification are still holy. We just don't do that here.

And I thought, too, about alchemy and its rituals of purification -- the old lead-into-gold adage you may be familiar with from silly stories is only a surface metaphor; the Great Work required purifying the self along with your materials, and comfort with the stages of corruption before you got to get along to the gold. And I thought about the tiny little room I was sitting in with its unseeing cream walls, and an image came to me: a hamsa, a charm you have probably seen, called variously a Hand of Fatima and a Hand of Miriam, an common and lovely amulet with a variety of meanings, my favorite being that (according to Wikipedia, and why not?) that  "many Jews believe that the five fingers of the hamsa hand remind its wearer to use their five senses to praise God." (What the hell else do I do?) Except that I saw not a tiny amulet (and here are three beautiful amulets to look at, while I'm on the subject, and also one that serves as proof that anything, no matter how mystical, from bath house to sacred charm, can be made kitsch if that's what you really long for!) but rather a cabinet: maybe a foot and a half tall, made of antiqued copper, in the shape of the hand. In it, dozens of tiny glass bottles, like Cornell's pharmacy cabinet. Each one full of dung, or sweat, or dance. And strung on the wall opposite, chains of them, actually hand-sized this time, each one a frame for a poem, a picture, a painting of the body in one of its merry stages of dirtmaking and refreshment. And the walls themselves? Turquoise and terracotta, earth and water colors, rich and dark. A room in which to enjoy the magical transition from filthy to freshly cleansed is what I want, not an antiseptic box of tile echoing the lost shape of a space once richly laid with artful anticipation of a plunge into a hot or icy pool. A room that has not forgotten how to embrace the body, where there will be no evil eye to glare at your supposed imperfections, where the cycles of matter through growth and decay, cleanliness and filth, are treated properly with humor and reverence...

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