If you can say any one thing about me that's inarguably true, it's that I'm up for pretty much anything. Aside from budgetary or schedule limitations, if I can get there and can afford it, I'm game.
That means that sometimes I have to act quickly, and not give myself the chance to overthink my undertaking. Sometimes it's better to leap first, and then look back.
I'd been hearing something about a "Steam Egg" in LA but I didn't really know what it was, but I knew it was some kind of exclusive experience only open on certain days and for a limited period of time. Because it was free, I signed up for it without thinking much about it, and without knowing what to expect. It's currently located in the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, a converted armory of the California National Guard.
I came upon the egg in the main gallery, mirrorballed and fragrant.
The attendant said that they'd already used some sage, but that he could add rosemary or eucalyptus, if I wanted.
"Eucalyptus would be nice..." I said.
He then told me where I could go change my clothes, and pointed out the porcelain hooks that had been mounted into the wall for towels and bags and such.
"Is there anybody in there already?"
"Nope," he said, smiling. "You'll have it all to yourself."
Oh thank God. I haven't wanted to get into a bathing suit in public in quite some time.
When I came back to the egg after changing, I asked how long I could say in. "As long as you want," he said, but I knew there must be some kind of safe limit to how much heat a person can take.
Knowing that I'm not in very good shape right now and tend to lean towards claustrophobia, I asked him to set a timer for 15 minutes. If I wanted to stay longer, I could, but at least this way I would have some kind of benchmark as to how much time had already passed.
Getting into this thing is a challenge, especially because you have to position yourself directly below it to slither up through its aperture. You can a cross-section of a tree trunk directly underneath it as a step, but you kind of just have to hoist yourself up onto a ledge, where you can stand upright and plunk down on another, higher ledge that serves as a bench for intrepid schvitzers.
The attendant warned me it would be hot, and that only my feet, near the bottom opening, would be anywhere near "normal" temperature. As soon as I sat down, I was soaking wet over my entire body. It's dark in there, save for the light coming up from the bottom. The egg wobbles and shakes a little when you first enter, and if you shift your sitting position.
But you should not shift. After a few minutes in there, it hurts to move. Your skin becomes so sensitive to the ambient temperature that anything that forces the hot air across it burns like hell.
I couldn't breathe very well. I couldn't see very well. I could hear the overhead music of the gallery playing, but according to the attendant, they wouldn't be able to hear me. The sound of my own breathing was echoing in harmony inside the egg, creating polyphonic overtones that I decided to amplify by humming a tune I made up on the spot.
I wondered what kind of social experiment this was—what made it art beyond the sculptural nature of the egg itself. Was I being recorded?
I can't imagine having been in there with other strangers. To get through the experience, I had to just close my eyes and dangle my feet down in the cooler air. I kept rubbing my own sweat across my skin, trying to keep my blood moving and not pool in my feet. I have a tendency to pass out in circumstances like this.
Once I became delirious and a bit woozy, I decided I'd had enough. But my body and mind were so weakened, I couldn't quite remember how I'd gotten into this thing, and therefore couldn't figure out how to get back out. Where should I step? Where could I grab? This whole thing was so damn hot.
As I tried to shimmy down, I accidentally leaned my bare back against the ledge I'd been sitting on, and immediately felt my skin surface sear. As I pulled away, the air and the sweat and maybe the sage and eucalyptus gave me a secondary sensory burn, stinging enough to make me wince and suck the air in through my teeth.
And so I was glad to have hatched out of there when I did, after my period of incubation. I'd lasted 13 minutes, which felt like five forevers.
I went into the bathroom and checked myself in the mirror. Huge droplets of sweat dangled from my unnaturally red cheeks and chin. My neck, chest, shoulders, and arms looked severely sunburned. I turned around to check my back, and examined the bright red mark I'd given myself by leaning back. And I glanced down at my thigh, which had become mottled with red and white, emphasizing the cellulite I'd collected and would rather never see again.
Was it relaxing? No, but I have a hard time relaxing anywhere, at any time.
Was it therapeutic? Perhaps. I do believe in aromatherapy, and I'd been feeling like I needed to let some toxins out of my body.
Was it healthful? I wonder. I sweat for two or more hours after I left the egg, even in air conditioning. My skin burned later that evening, as though I'd covered it in an acidic salve. And I woke up this morning aching, even more than usual. Clearly, my body went through something yesterday. Whether that was a good thing or not, I don't know.
Was it art? The sculpture was beautiful. The experience was memorable. What is art, other than that?
The whole thing is kind of dependent on its environment, and on its participants—making the Steam Egg much more of an installation rather than just a sculpture. The artist intended it to be a communal experience, in which strangers are a bit too close to one another in this dark, womb-like environment.
But going up in there alone, you end up a bit too close to yourself in there too, which is equally as uncomfortable. Rather than spreading out and taking up the entire space, I folded onto myself, clutching my limbs and covering my face with my hands. It made me pay attention to the things I normally have to ignore when I'm around other people.
Steam rooms and saunas are supposed to be good at drawing toxins out of your body through your pores. I wonder if they can do anything for poisonous thoughts.
Casting My Fears Aside
A Cell for All Perceptions