You Just Hold Your Breath: Bathing, Swimming, and States of Bodily Immersion at The Plumb
As a child, I was obsessed with the lake. The allure of the water lies in its dichotomy of sustenance and destruction, along with its role as a liminal space that calls for transformation and reflection, joy and loss. My grandfather had a complicated relationship with lakes and rivers, the natural architectures of bathing. On a hot July day, you might have caught him dipping his toes in the shallows of Lake Ontario, hanging on tightly to the metal staircase we installed for ease of descent. After losing two siblings to the tides, the shallows where my sister and I played, pulling zebra mussels off the rocks, sparked a steadfast and enduring fear. I was always excited to see him there on the steps, wondering if he might enter our joyful watery realm. But he always retreated, and I always felt that he was profoundly missing out. The watery architectures of self-care and the complexities of liquid leisure explored in You Just Hold Your Breath point out that there is much to be uncovered in watery spaces.
You just hold your breath, installation view, 2021 | Photo documentation by Alison Postma and Miles Rufelds. Source
On view at the plumb until July 27th, You Just Hold Your Breath “focuses on aesthetic experiences of bathing, swimming and states of bodily immersion, invoking the porous and soluble relationships that exist between self and environment” (Laura Demers, 2021). Taking public bathing spaces as a starting point, You Just Hold Your Breath provokes an unexpected and nuanced exploration of water, bathing, and leisure in our public and private lives.
Damp spaces of gathering promise a certain kind of togetherness as they merge the public and the private, lodging us into a state of vulnerability where we are at the whims of the people and the places that surround us. This corporal experience is evoked throughout the exhibition, beginning with Jovian’s POOL, a psychoactive custom blended diffuser oil that recalls the interior of a well-used wooden sauna. With scent-triggered memories, steamy glasses, and sweat on my neck from the bike up to St. Clair, I am primed to enter Olivia Boudreau’s L’Étuve. Walking down the dark tiled hallway feels a bit like wandering down the winding corridors of a community pool. The only thing missing is the sound of wet feet slapping the tiled floors. Boudreau’s 20-minute video work takes its time, transporting the viewer into the timelines of leisure, reflection, and individualized self-care. As time passes, more bodies appear in the steam and the viewer is made a participant. Caught up in their own lives, the women sit idly. Still, except for the occasional twitch of a toe, shift of a knee, or hair adjustment. I stand, also waiting, also silent, also shifting. In this case, the sauna, a shared space of leisure and rejuvenation is punctuated with the individualism of daily life that persists both within and outside of leisure. Dale Barbour, a historian of bathing in the Don River from 1890 to 1930, reveals how a communal spirit of leisure was prominent, connecting the bathers and protecting them from the undertow and irregular riverbed (Barbour, 2019). In this example, an embodied relationship with one’s environment and an awareness of one's neighbours were essential to bathing practices. Reflecting on the silent steam room, how do we build modern moments of community that disrupt our individualistic pursuits of self-care? And how might self-care also translate to communities of care?
Olivia Boudreau, L'Éteuve, 2011, video still. Source
Turning to exit the hallway, I pause to read the textual portion of Alex Borkowski’s The Hydrocephalus Suite. An audio narration of the piece spills from the second gallery, drawing the spaces together. I am struck by Borkowski’s ritual description of bathing as rooted in the familiar memory of her grandmother, the necessity of a particular tub, and of particular objects. The ritual connection associated with self-care is further developed in Izzy Mink’s unfired clay sculptures. Studies of the development of her personal relationship with her body, self-care, and bathing, these works render the familiar uncanny and subvert notions of clean and grotesque. Among the lineup of objects, I keep returning to crestfallen, a pair of dentures in a glass of water. The submerged unfired clay teeth are visibly deteriorating as they split away from the beeswax gums.
Izzy Mink, crestfallen, 2021
Photo documentation by Alison Postma and Miles Rufelds. Source
The glass is not dissimilar from the case in which my grandfather stored his own dentures. Perhaps his acts of community building were not based in watery environments of leisure, but in watery architectures that support community as a means of collective care. A man who experienced disability throughout his life and was outfitted with dentures, a glass eye, and limited use of his right hand, his rituals of bathing and self-care were deeply dependent on love and community support. For years he built networks of relationships, connecting family members, close friends, nurses, and personal support workers through his unending good humor and the acts of rinsing his eye, cleaning his catheter, and performing other intimate tasks. Perhaps he was never missing out at all.
You just hold your breath is on view until July 27th. As we recover from a year of online school, I urge those in Toronto over the summer to make time for this impactful show. Much like the communities of leisure and care that the show evokes, the plumb itself is a DIY artist-run space administered by a collective made up of 15 artists, writers, and curators. Providing 1000 square feet of exhibition space, the plumb’s programming showcases the work of emerging artists, putting them in dialogue with established voices in the artistic community.