On a recent Sunday in Pasadena, a half-dozen visitors strolled barefoot across the finished wooden floors of an art gallery, some wearing swimming trunks, others in bikinis or cut-offs, beach towels draped casually across their shoulders as they viewed the work on display.
The occasion for this unlikely scene was a steam session hosted by sculptor Michael Parker at the Armory Center for the Arts, part of the exhibition After Victor Papanek: The Future Is Not What It Used to Be.
The exhibition, curated by Jeff Cain, explores the legacy of Papanek, a designer and founding dean at Cal Arts, and his impact on art and design culture. Projects from nine practitioners and studios are featured, most of which are based in Los Angeles.
Parker’s contribution to the show, Steam Egg II, is a mirror-clad enclosure made up of 115 unique facets carved from foam insulation. The egg rests just a few feet off the ground on three steel legs, which visitors crawl between as they enter the enclosure from a narrow aperture below.
Inside, a circular bench accommodates about eight people at a maximum, but felt comfortably occupied with five visitors, who inevitably shared introductions and impressions.
“We don’t have that many body experiences as adults,” Parker said a few days prior to the sauna session. Most physical interactions that we experience are athletic, sexual, or more mundane, like a handshake or a high five.
Steam Egg provokes gallery visitors to commit to an experience, he said, to move through a circle of sweaty shins, and to enter into an unknown space and social encounter.
A water-filled stainless steel bowl rested on an electric hot plate next to the Egg and piped steam through a length of copper pipe. Nearby, in a pair of green swimming trunks, Parker served as the “herb-j,” infusing the steaming water with eucalyptus, varieties of sage, seaweed, and other scents upon request.
An ambient soundtrack composed by the Los Angeles duo Lucky Dragons emanated from a portable waterproof speaker inside the sauna.
At his studio in the Arts District near Downtown Los Angeles, Parker, who teaches sculpture at California State University, Long Beach, discussed how the work came about.
After completing his graduate studies at USC’s Roski School of Fine Art in 2009, he received a travel grant, which took him to a Shaker colony in Maine, an experimental township in India, and the sauna culture of Berlin. His experiences and research focused on ideas of utopias, enclaves, and maternal figures in spirituality.
“I kind of thought of this as a weird architectural documentary,” Parker said of the project that emerged from the travels.
In 2011 he completed the first iteration of Steam Egg in his studio—an assemblage of cast off pieces of foam insulation discarded from the construction site of a refrigerated warehouse across the street. He started hosting steam session in his studio that winter, and became interested in how curating variables, like soundtrack, herbs infused in the steam, and lighting, impact the experience.
“It’s like a mash-up of things,” he said of the conceptual and formal decisions that inspired the egg, including associations of freedom and transcendence that hot air balloons historically embodied, and the Los Angeles Pacific Balloon Route, which once carried trolley passengers from Downtown Los Angeles to beaches in Santa Monica and Venice.
Steam Egg challenges not only a visitor’s expectations about their engagement with a work of sculpture in the context of the gallery, but also the fire marshal’s expectations. “I knew that I couldn’t build something that had a ceiling, because I would have to pipe-in a sprinkler head. And it would turn into this totally annoying thing,” said Parker, with a nod to the building codes that govern art installations.
“I thought that if I made this thing a round form, somehow nobody would recognize it as a room,” he said. “And it’s worked!”
The safety inspectors, who recently asked him to remove a storage space in his studio due to a perceived fire sprinkler obstruction, now respond enthusiastically to the egg during their routine inspections of the space. What might have otherwise elicited a citation for a code violation, now engages a more interested and engaged reaction to the mirrored object. “They’re just like, ‘Whoa, what’s the disco ball?’” Parker said. “And that’s cool!”
Following the show at the Armory, Parker plans to install the work in roughly three-week durations in outdoor residential spaces, including driveways and yards of friends around Los Angeles.
“I want it to experience smaller spaces, and other personal spaces, and other private spaces,” he said of the work which opens up a physical engagement with our sense of intimacy, sensation, and the spaces around us.
“And so to create this experience where you have to commit,” he said. “You just have to go for it.”
After Victor Papanek: The Future Is Not What It Used To Be is on view through September 6, 2015 at The Armory Center for the Arts, 145 North Raymond Avenue, Pasadena. Steam Egg is available for steam sauna sessions between 1 pm and 4 pm on 1st and 3rd Sundays: July 19, August 2, August 16, and September 6. Visit the exhibition website or contact the Armory for details and to make reservations.