Fornicating. Lush. Steamy. Obscene. Nature is the longest, most tender and most gloriously degenerate lover we’re ever going to have. And humanity is the shittiest partner. We’ve ravaged her/his/their multiform body in some of the most selfishly brutal ways imaginable, to bring the relationship – and the globe – to the point of pan-system, Cormac McCarthy-style collapse.
In Ecosexual Bathhouse – an intersecting bacchanal of sexuality and ecology – Australian-American art duo Pony Express invite us to radically rethink this relation, and so give us another chance of fucking with care.
After making Melbourne wet with its Royal Botanic Gardens debut in 2016, the show has implanted itself for a while in Perth’s soil at PICA. Small groups are introduced at overlapping intervals into the multi-chamber space, such that the place always feels inhabited, communal, and where individuals are left freely to explore along varying lines of eco-curiosity.
It is an intimate experience that leaves you both tingling and disburdened of cares you didn’t know you had, having comfortably travelled beyond your comfort zone (memories of an on-screen woman in pollen bukkaki ecstasies still smouldering).
First though: a room resembling a sex dungeon foyer, where visitors are fitted with sex toy accessories or “morphs”. These are selected by a madam rather than self-chosen, and like all kinds of role play, constitute the necessary extensions that let us connect to the more unfamiliar facets of ourselves. There are the fingerless lycra gloves, which would – we were told – titillate the wearers with a devolutionary kink of denial, while also forging an empathic bond with our pre-prehensile ancestors.
Others are fitted with a sprouting muzzle – a nasty/soft mask from which a bed of fronds could feed intimately from the carbon dioxide of our *heavy breathing*. A nozzled spray bottle strapped to a leather belt – dubbed “the squirter” – is the third item. This hydrosphere cum can be used on plants or other humans alike, and is to be worn however the individual prefers – although one “cute couple” was tied together. Madam’s orders.
Passing through a tangerine UV-lit corridor, with a final bequeathment of a condom for safe fingering, groups find themselves amidst a drowsy, sensual, dimly lit scene. Where you go, how you move, and how much border-crossing sensuality you want to perform &/or express: it’s up to you. Shall you thrust your arms into the glory hole trough of grass, and rummage through the thick black moist (sorry) dirt inside?
Flick through the collage hipster porn mags on the table in front of the projector screen, where you can alternately gaze at a man sucking the ocean’s dick and witness in close-up mossy bush pleasure zone stimulation? On an inlet of white sand upon which bodies lounge and stretch, there is a man in little clothing giving a health spa massage to a lingering visitor from the previous group: you’ll have to wait.
And this is just the first room. In the others, there are giant stick insects and canopied beds and heavenly scents and a red dial telephone that rings and rings and when you sit down next to it on the chair and pick it up it tells you how exactly nature is going to shake you to your core (“I’m going to make you multicellular!”), and how much you’re going to want it (“Is that really the best you can do, come on!”). In front of you is a circular paddle pool of nocturnal waters.
Meanwhile, a shapeshifting dominatrix prowls the labyrinth. Should she choose you, a rope barrier will be lifted aside, and you will be taken to a darkened, empty chamber, made to sit either on the floor or on a single rock in the centre. Performances, I am told, are based upon morphs. I do not know the full mysteries then, though I did watch through the sheer, black rippling curtains as she crawled up a man’s torso, who had been made to lay on the floor (the true reward for my voyeurism was presented to me in his expression afterwards).
For myself – who was the acting third wheel that night, and feeling forlorn after having to find solace by snuggling with a pot plant – I cannot describe the encounter in tones other than stupefaction. As a single fan made waves of a shimmering #seapunk cape in undulating folds, I found a beautiful, near-naked woman floating towards me. She would envelop me then with those sheer fabric wings, blow a warm and gentle gust into my ears, nuzzle my cheek, and oh god. Almost turned.
In this act and across the entire space, there unfolds that incomparable eroticism of feeling both very vulnerable but very safe. Is there any better feeling? Much credit here goes to the bathhouse attendants – somnambulant keepers of the sexy peace, who will remove a gag to tell you wear an alien-looking bug is from, and sprinkle you with water like a nymph whose only mischief is giving you surfeit bliss. The décor too is tastefully lurid: it is the zine you actually want to read again made real.
Of course, the idea that we have to sexualise something to give a fuck about it is a grim predication. What randy, shallow creatures we are: that nurture must always be conditioned by lust. The team at Pony Express – Loren Kronemyer and Ian Sinclair – know this. Seeding their domain is a darkly humorous self-appraisal; a mock ironic regard, for all the sincerity of their eco-ethical sensibility. “Sex sells,” they remark drily in an interview with VICE, “and if humans can learn to love the environment, maybe they can learn to preserve it.”
It’s a deliberately fetishized and less ‘hug-a-tree’ twist on the Ecosex Manifesto from which it was inspired; a covenant written by a queer activist ‘waterfall-pleasured’ duo out of California. Enmeshing technology in the experience, investing us with agency, Ecosexual Bathhouse asks us to look beyond our anthropocentric impulse and realise that we are encased in a perpetual orgy of pollination, of perfervid reproductive life, whose sex drive is one and the same with the fight to endure. By considering this, the spectrum for play is hyperstimulated, as well as an opening out of diverse new modes of gender expression, sensualities and sexualities. No bestiality here though (Pony Express sighs at the frequent assumption).
“That question comes from the narrow-minded idea that sex means P in V—the idea that you’ve never had sex unless you’ve had a penis in you,” says Kronemyer. “Your brain is your biggest sex organ. A sexual experience can be multi-sensory, it can be based on different sorts of information that you can receive with your body. Humans have demonstrated that we have the capacity for a limitless, diverse spectrum of erotic potential, and maybe it’s time to use that to connect with the environment.”
It may be too late for redemption; Trump is president, after all. But a chance for getting back together with nature is on offer, before we hurt each other too badly – when pollution, deforestation and species murder is more and more answered back with hurricanes, famine and floods. Before the break-up and breaking apart however, now may be the opportune time to fingerfuck an orchid.
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) – Perth Cultural Centre, James Street, Northbridge
Performance: Thursday 26 January 2017
Season continues to 28 January 2017
Information and Bookings: www.pica.org.au
Image: Ecosexual Bathhouse – photo by Matt Sav
Review: Kate Prendergast