The gay sauna, in a way, was born in gyms of ancient Greece, male socialization places where young people were trained in both physical exercise and spiritually. Athletics practiced naked (gymnos means nude) by young men with oiled bodies, with chiseled pectorals as Discophoros, admired by mentors (erastés) that would address their military, intellectual and sexual education.
Gymnos, baths, palaestra, symposium … were the route gay friendly of the period, with the difference that they did not act outside the dominant culture but rather represented it.
Homoerotic imagery is still imbued with Adonis and Apollos in whose billowing hills brawny Wincklemann delved into upending art historiography.
Orestes and Pylades, united by strong friendship as explain Greek myth, they welcomed visitors to the gay sauna installed by Elmgreen and Dragset in the gallery Helga de Alvear (Madrid, 2011). The neon sign that lights up their torsos announces the name of the place, Amigos. Passing the counter, a tinkling curtain takes us in the locker room, decorated with reproductions of neoclassic ephebos (Thorvaldsen’s Ganímedes) dressed with modern clothes. Then, we arrive to the solarium, where the indigo light bathes the distended body drunken satyr (Faun Barberini) receiving a blood transfusion. Morbid lust in marbled meat, Eros and Thanatos presaging the outcome: a corpse floating in the pool.
At that point we reexamine theobjects, that become clues to solve the crime or causes of suicide: Mishima’s book left on the lounger with elegant clothes carefully folded, small foot sandals we saw in the locker room … We remember the tragic death of Winckelmann and conjecture … are these maybe the ephebe flip flops that murdered his protector?
Solve it is not the question, but get swept up in the multiple readings that raises the staging, about the history of the cult of the male body, from the integrated vision of soma and psyche of the ancient Greeks, to the current split of the body as empty shell, rentable prosthesis; on the degradation of amatory concept among adults and adolescents; on the subordination of homosexual culture to a pink capitalism dispenser of clichés and alienating ideals.
Moreover, by transforming an art gallery in sauna guys points the similarities between two places destined to satisfy our craving to possess, to look and show off. It brings us to other stagings of sexual business within the art business: the recreation of the red light district of Amsterdam in the National Gallery of London (Ed and Nancy Kienholz), and the move of a swinger club to respectable Vienna Secession building (Christoph Buchel).
In both cases is opened a dialogue with old works that two museums preserve. Dutch painting of the Baroque period often treated the issue of prostitution, even establishing a subgenre, the Bordeeltje, dedicated to brothels. Madams, pimps, young gullible … inhabit the folkloric tables that denounce the venal sex. In the National Gallery are conserved many of them, and sharing space with the intervention of Kienholz (The Hoerengracht, Whore’s Canal) was revealed as retrograde certain contemporary attitudes to the treatment of a classic theme. With or without gilded frame, there is a continuity of a theme, although the moral approach of the past has given way in Kienholz to a personal immersion in the reverse of consumer society.
The visitor to the National Gallery could walk through those narrow streets lined with bollards and bicycles to admire the life-size dolls waiting for customers in tiny hovels sifted by red and blue lights; accurate reproduction of these showcases that attract daily hundreds of tourists and occasional customers, the first by a simple longing for folklore, the latter to value the goods.
Kienholz reproduced with extreme realism every detail of street furniture and moth-eaten interiors, in which time seems to have stopped, upholstering with a sweetish patina these artificial homes, with their radios, disc telephones, plastic flowers…
This artist always knew how to extract the soul of every object, or combination of them forming an atmosphere, petrified effluvia of his memory. So, sad and impenetrable faces of prostitutes return to as the look Kienholz, his melancholic vision of that reality, as he perceived it when he visited the red zone the first time, to which he returned again and again to go delving in and beside himself, in dialogue with those women to who somehow he pays homage.
Far was the rage that young Kienholz turned on Roxy’s after visiting a brothel in Las Vegas, reinterpreted in ghoulish key. But in all cases we see his desire to express my feelings about prejudice and oppression (…); I want to probe thus sentimentally who I really am, how I see things.
When Christoph Buchel invited a Viennese swinger club to settle a few months in the Secession, also reactivated cross readings. First through art on whose behalf this pavilion was erected (the Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, a kind of epic of redemption through art and love, coexisted those days with sadomasochistic gadgets, private rooms, table dance …, all running during certain hours). Second, indicating with this tableau vivant the double face of this elegant city with its concert halls, capital of classical music, but also the birthplace of psychoanalysis and art born of asphyxia caused by this mausoleum-culture: the emotional fracture and sexual pathology expressed by Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek in their novels, Schiele and Kokoschka in painting, Viennese Actionism with violent performances, Michael Haneke films …
As quoted by Secession slogan, written in golden letters under the dome of the Pavilion: To every age its art. To every art its freedom.