I could, but I couldn’t believe the steam egg. It was too exciting.
I had just left downtown and walked all the way down Mission Street. A treat. I entered Southern Exposure gallery at Alabama Street. The sun was setting. It was about five thirty in the evening. Walking towards Potrero Hill down 20th Street, the sky was all bright pink and cool violet. I happened to have smoked half a pack of cigarettes earlier. Looking ahead was such bliss but not enough to wave the slight headache.
I crossed through the doorway. First was the sound of water. Trickling ever so softly. Soft white towels hung on hooks like ceramic bark fingers emerging from a tree. Redwood slats above held cups, some from his previous Juicework (2015). The finger indents on the hooks rhythmically echoed around each of their circumferences. And those edges like waves continued above my head. I looked up at the suspension bridge looping in a curve. On each end curving down, medium tubs collected small baths of water.
Views from Steam Work, by Michael Parker, at “Southern Exposure” gallery in San Francisco.
As I passed the baths and bridge overhead, another sound faintly echoed. It flowed in between static. It was electronic sound. By Syrnx, his fingers hooked up to sound equipment emitting through biofeedback, the liquid human vibration. The water, the rhythms in space, the sounds, the repeating shapes, show well Michael Parker’s play, with layering forms to make space. And I haven’t even gotten to the Steam Egg 2.
I thought the gallery was too bright. As I walked towards the back of the gallery I saw Steam Egg 2, a large disco egg refracting the overhead lights. It had an effect. Though I was nervous to partake in a somewhat public steaming (you can change in the bathroom, bring a swimsuit, there are towels, etc.) where you are in a gallery space toweled, the outer egg skin was just too Bowie glam to not go in. I quickly got over my nerves and changed. Then, I ascended into the form, by stepping onto a low tree stump, from the floor.
Inside was a whole other world. It felt like being inside of a warmed sea rock. Or an ancient oven, dome-shaped, with the heat collecting inside to cook yeast into bread. The sculptural play of outer “party” and inner “healing” was compelling. While five or six guests can inhabit the egg, I was lucky to be inside alone. I have never been invited to a tribal sweathouse ritual. I considered this my closest experience to a steam healing and cleansing. I felt wrapped in the hollow. I watched tiny beads of sweat form and sit atop my arms. I breathed in deeply. The faint smell of herbs floated in through the steam, circling the current of Syrnx’s feedback. I emerged smiling like a child; walked across the space to dip my arms and hands into the cold tubs, then went back in.
Parker molded the form from many pieces of tile cement. The texture was then smoothed by hand without rough edges or right angles. The dimensions were scaled to the body. Standing in the middle of the egg at one point, Parker raised his wingspan to touch either side. I felt like I was in a strange indie utopian film. Parker spoke to his interest in utopia, and spaces that facilitate people coming together in some kind of healing. My second time in the egg, I considered this aspect a success. He spoke about the design to have patrons enter from the ground up, physically following the nature of steam to rise. To me, there was also something more daring about it. All or nothing, no sticking an arm in and leaving. Once you commit to going in, you may find other people are inside as well. In a subtle way, I found the entrance form an exaggeration of contracts already present within space.
Most find ourselves returning to our most comfortable spaces. Navigating easily in and out of familiar spaces; knowing what to say, or where to get what we need with ease. Always before we enter a new space however, something is suspended. It is easy to ignore or forget space does this: Who is here, can be here, how does it feel, what can I do here, what is this social space, what are the possibilities, what are the rules? In a way we physically and cerebrally measure the possibilities of a new space. Whether empty or already shaped by design, inhabitants, decor, function, etc., the contracts of space spark artists to endless plays of space in terms of form and function. Parker is aware of the un-conventionalities possible with public space as well as how creative social communities have used space to manifest different ideals of utopia. Steam Egg 2, the second iteration in space, will be different than the first. And the third, etc. The form and function can go many ways, from a steam party of eight, to a quiet communing of four, to a lucky meditative space for one.
If you have not yet visited Southern Exposure, at 3030 20th Street in San Francisco, Steam Work by Michael Parker is open until March 19th. There are four more Steam and Sound Nights with different musical artists between February 13th and March 5th. There are also Drop-In Steam Nights on Thursday Evenings at first come first serve. I do recommend going. Whether on your own after your last cigarette (I think I’ve quit), or with a few friends. By all means, steam.