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Lather, Splash, Soak, Rinse: Mitsu Salmon’s Bathing Panel

by Jessica Santone

I’ve been thinking a lot about bathing lately. I am about to move from the sometimes-flooded Midwest to California, where mandatory residential water usage reductions have just gone into effect. So I’m experimenting with dry shampoo a couple times a week, and, on some days, just a small basin and soap, as I try to wean myself off of the neurotic, 10-minute / 15+ gallon, 20th-century style, North American daily shower. Bathing’s long history, its varied cultural traditions, and the intimate differences between our unique relationships to bathing often elude us as we groggily run warm water for our private morning rituals. Now seems like a great time to reflect on how special and important bathing can be.

Mitsu Salmon brings her research on bathing to Rapid Pulse on the final day of the festival. Her work on the subject comes in part from observing rituals of cleansing and healing with water while living in Bali in 2011. Originally from Los Angeles, the artist has also lived in India, England, Germany, Amsterdam, and Japan – travels that inform the transcultural and trans-disciplinary aspects of her practice, as in Fish Dreams, which focuses on spatializing memories and the entire body engaged in gestural mark-making to create a personal map. In her recent Wash Paintings, Salmon scrubs away the surfaces of her painted canvases – a ritual in which water and paint activate each other and coat her skin, as woman and canvas both spill over the sides of a bathtub.

Mitsu Salmon photo Amelia Charter

Salmon is joined by four artists whose work also touches on issues of bathing, care of the self, and intimacy. Christine Shallenberg, “the shower lady” has invited the public to enter a bathroom while she showered – a 3-hour performance forcing visitors to negotiate rituals of intimacy and privacy in contemporary Chicago. Amelia Charter’s performance work meditates on the spaces and intimate relationships of dwelling. Natasha Nicholson’s work examines the presentation of trans and queer bodies. And Brazilian artist Victor de la Rocque performs situations that challenge the audience in various ways; his 2007 performance, The Bathtub / A Banheira did so by exposing himself intimately soaping up in a large, illuminated bathtub while the audience, quietly seated, watches.

Mitsu Salmon’s work is sprinkled with moments of humor and lightness, always in the service of easing ideas which are difficult or uncomfortable. The format of the performative lecture – or in this case, the performative panel – seems particularly fitting to the artist’s purpose here, allowing multiple knowledges to course together. Knowing in advance only that all the panelists will be nude, we can expect that the privacy and intimacy of bathing will be challenged. But it’s hard to say exactly what kind of playfulness or awkwardness will transpire, what kinds of props will be used, or who will get wet.

photo by Amelia Charter
Jessica Santone is an art historian specializing in histories of contemporary performance. As of fall 2015, she will be Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at California State University East Bay. Her research examines how audiences play key roles in performance events, as conveyed through the documents they produce or circulate.
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