After training as an architect in California, Leonard Koren’s early practice as an artist focused on bathing environments and events. In 1976 he launched WET: the Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, a publication that was influential in the revival of alternative bathing cultures as well as the development of the postmodern aesthetic. Undesigning the Bath (1996) is Koren’s manifesto for bathing that trawls widely from the mud bath to the hamam, from the Japanese onsen to the Apache Indian sweat lodge, to consider what makes a superior bath.
Below is a transcript of an interview conducted between Leonard Koren & the exhibition curator, Jane Withers
JW: When (and why) did you first gravitate to bathing?
LK: I was always attracted to bathing – the joy of weightlessness, the comfort of enveloping warmth. I think I was a teenager when I began to intellectually realise how sensorially rich bathing was. And when I became an artist I found the pictorial elements associated with bathing – the light, the nudity, the stillness – excellent subject matter.
JW: Please can you talk a bit about why you decided to start WET: the Magazine of Gourmet Bathing?
LK: By the time I had completed my architectural studies, I knew I didn’t want to practise architecture. Instead I began making what I called ‘bath art.’ To thank those who had modelled for my various bath-art projects, I rented an old Russian-Jewish bathhouse and threw a party. The party was a great success and generated huge amounts of social energy – excited speculation, gossip. A week or so later while taking a bath I had a thought: ‘Why not start a magazine about gourmet bathing?’ I had no idea what ‘gourmet bathing’ meant, but I liked the semantic frisson of the two seemingly incongruous words. I knew nothing about magazine publishing, but I assumed I would learn as I went along.
JW: You described bathing as a new context for ‘pleasurable social interactions’, where ‘Conventional norms of party behavior appeared to have been upended, or at least temporarily suspended’. Can you enlarge on this? What sort of social tone does bathing set?
LK: I was specifically referring to the WET-related bath parties. Prior to the parties I sent out ambiguous messages — so guests didn’t know what to expect. ‘Should I bring a bathing suit?’ ‘Will I have to go naked?’ In actuality some people wore bathing suits, most were nude, and a few remained fully clothed. The bathhouse atmosphere was so overpowering that social barriers magically evaporated. For example, people in formal wear were perfectly comfortable interacting with those stark naked. The usual status markers and social rules became entirely irrelevant.
JW: You have written that while ‘WET’s conceptual and graphic innovations were absorbed into our common visual and media landscape, WET’s philosophy of bathing has made only limited inroads’. Can you explain a bit about why you think this is, and whether you see any change? Are there signs of a new bathing culture emerging?
LK: In the WET philosophy, bathing is a particular admixture of the silly and the sublime, the sacred and the ridiculous. It’s difficult to convey this only in words. That’s why WET’s distinctive fusion of words and pictures was so important. But when WET ceased publication, there was no longer an editorial forum to carry on the mission. Bathroom-fixture advertising sometimes attempts to capture this spirit, but it generally falls short. If there is a new WET-like bathing culture emerging, I’m not aware of its existence.
JW: WET lasted from 1976 to 1981. Why did you end it?
LK: I felt I had artistically accomplished all I could in that particular medium. The only challenge left was to boost the circulation, that is, increase the number of people who bought the magazine. In order to make WET more appealing to more people though, I would have had to moderate the magazine’s edgy quirkiness. I had no interest in doing that.
JW: Given climate change – especially in California – how do you think our relationship to water is changing? Are we revaluing it? Is this affecting bathing?
LK: In the San Francisco Bay area where I live, people seem to understand that our relationship to water will have to change. But I think it will require drastic water rationing before most people’s bathing habits change appreciably. That said, I can see hamam-like bathing environments coming into favour if and when water becomes really scarce.
JW: Why did you decide to make Undesigning the Bath?
LK: I had just published a book titled Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. It was about the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. I wanted to continue investigating this aesthetic sensibility. So Undesigning the Bath is really an exploration of bathing environments from a wabi-sabi point of view.
JW: You write in Undesigning the Bath about the connection between bathing and a state of being. Please can you enlarge on this?
LK: When you soak, steam or the like, you often find yourself quite content doing absolutely nothing. You can say that you are simply ‘experiencing the moment’. Or, you can say that you are quite happy ‘just being.’ This is extraordinary if you think about it. Most of our lives we are only aware of doing, doing, doing. But when we bath we are aware of simply being.
JW: In WET you describe a time when you were drawing a bath every afternoon as a way of thinking things through. How does bathing fit into your daily life nowadays? Does it have a particular significance?
LK: I was in a different stage of life back then. Now I don’t have a bathtub, only a shower. I shower every evening before going to bed. It’s a nice way to end the day.
JW: Do you have a favourite bath culture or period?
LK: I’d have to say Japanese bath culture. For centuries the Japanese have deeply considered every aspect of the bathing experience. Today, if you’re lucky enough to visit Japan, you’ll be the beneficiary of this long tradition of thoughtfulness.
JW: Where do you find the mystique of the bathhouse today?
LK: I love the public bathhouses of Japan, both in the cities and in the countryside. I also love the traditional hamams of Turkey, particularly in the smaller cities. In Europe, I find the Therme Vals in Switzerland extremely interesting as a formal bathing environment, but the experience of bathing there is somewhat unsatisfactory.
JW: What sort of bath do you have at home?
LK: As I mentioned, I have only a shower. But while showering I can look out the window and see cows pasturing at the edge of an inlet feeding into the Pacific Ocean. The shower has a flow restricter which reduces the volume of water outflow. It’s the responsible thing to do in California. It’s not sensorially optimal, but I’m appreciative nonetheless.
JW: Do you have an ideal bathing companion(s)?
LK: When the opportunity presents itself, I love soaking with my wife and/or with our son. But I like the peacefulness of bathing alone best.