In 2016, Australian art enthusiasts were given a chance to “have sex with the earth”. The so-called Ecosexual Bathhouse, developed by performance art duo Pony Express, was erected in Sydney as part of a festival for experimental art. The Bathhouse is a space where visitors are invited to interact in physically intimate ways with nature, such as through “stimulating” the insides of flowers or immersing oneself in an environment of plants, while being sensually aware of one’s own body.
In its desire for intimacy with the earth, the Bathhouse not only reports a loss – that of humanity’s connection with nature – but also argues for the possibility to bridge this gap. In this sense, it calls upon humanity to transcend to a new stage, in which the human self is at once capable of intimacy with the earth it inhabits and no longer superior or separate from this nature in the first place.
I believe the Bathhouse can be read as a strategy for achieving this new humanity, or posthumanity. In the words of Cary Wolfe, posthumanism is connected to “a new reality” in which “the human occupies a new place in the universe, a universe now populated by what I am prepared to call nonhuman subjects”1. If the Bathhouse represents a posthuman endeavour, then how is the relationship between humanity and nature defined there? What roles or powers are granted to each? In other words, what kind of intimacy is presented?
At stake first in these questions is what kind of ‘humanity’ is opposed to ‘nature’ to begin with. The creators of the Bathhouse, Loren Kronemeyer and Ian Sinclair, who together form Pony Express, describe their work to online magazine Vice as a “no-holds-barred extravaganza meant to dissolve the barriers between species as we descend into oblivion”. Yet, it is unclear whether they believe these barriers to be artificial or man-made – nor if they understand such barriers to be a symptom of modernity, or transhistorical. This prevents the readers of Vice from concluding that the Bathhouse represents a yearning for a pre-modernised, pre-urbanised society – a time in which humanity’s relationship to nature was supposedly more intimate.
“Where is nature’s consent in the installation? Nature cannot give the human bodies its approval”
Visiting the installation does not easily lead to such a conclusion either. The installation is not straightforwardly nostalgic; because the space makes no effort to disguise its museum setting, there can be no suspension of disbelief – through which the visitor could otherwise truly believe themselves to be ‘in nature’. The distance from this ‘real’ nature is increased by numerous technological elements: flashing lights, background music, bathtubs, face masks, massage tables, headphones and audio recordings.
Understood cynically, you could say this only proves how far Kronemyer and Sinclair are removed from the nature they attempt to replicate. More generously, the installation can be interpreted as guiding visitors toward a posthuman self that is neither a nostalgic shadow, nor a completely new thing, but rather an amalgam – an amorphous thing that incorporates, rather than excludes, the technological and urbanized environments shaping modern subjects. The posthuman produced by the Bathhouse is not prehuman, nor effortlessly connected to nature, but instead a time-bound being that needs help – technological and uniquely modern – in its path to reaching connectedness with nature.
On the Vimeo account of Pony Express, several scenes that played out at the Bathhouse can be viewed: people sensually stroking plants, or wearing face masks embedded with flowers to imitate the act of tongue-kissing with nature. In one scene, a person wearing a condom over their finger appears to be sexually stimulating a flower. Wolfe argues that in posthumanity, “the human is achieved not just by escaping or repressing its animal origins in nature, the biological, and the evolutionary, but more generally by transcending the bonds of materiality and embodiment altogether”. But in these scenes, the Bathhouse seems instead to emphasise the bodily. It suggests that connectedness and intimacy are one and the same, and that the deepest intimacy is physical and sexual. If this is a strategy of decentring the human, then it does so by appearing to make nature into a human-like body to be loved like any other.
The Bathhouse, making love to nature, emphasises the physicality and thus the physical intimacy that human bodies are capable of. But we can also call into question its positioning of nature as an equal body, to be loved. After all, where is nature’s consent in the installation? Though intimacy between humans and nature is stressed, the natural elements of the Bathhouse (plants, rocks, water) cannot, in any way, give the human bodies their approval. As such, ‘nature’ in the installation is decidedly passive, and the intimacy it portrays and encourages is also sexually invasive. The connection, being one-sided, could also be seen as appropriation or even colonisation. After all, as its creators imply, there is also a utilitarian side to the installation: in the Bathhouse, nature serves a certain purpose – only further adding to the inequality of nature (as a resource) compared to man.
Ideally, the installation would trouble the corporeal distinctions of the self and the other, of human and nature, of human and non-human, through means of interconnectivity and intimacy. However, as there are no means for nature to meaningfully reciprocate or even participate in this intimacy, the installation becomes a one-way street, and nature becomes co-opted, an inferior being subjected to the whims of that which controls it and uses it.
The Bathhouse, then, never avoids a structure in which humanity and nature are hierarchically related, and in which nature comes second. Posthuman thought, however, may be found in the attempt only latently suggested by the Bathhouse: representing the overlap, the desire for finding oneself in a world where humans are not centrally important, and nature is as respected as the self.
Photo by Matt Sav, courtesy of Pony Express.