'Sauna as Studio'

Events and objects, a research project

After a number of residencies and exhibitions in Scandinavia I became interested in the traditional sauna ritual as a space I could explore my ongoing interests in awkward interaction, authenticity and play. Recently this has involved drawing, writing and making in the sauna, as well as hosting events and workshops. 

Above: 'Sauna Poses' drawings. The lefthand one made in the sauna, directly observing a friend talking, using watercolour pencils and my own sweat. On the right a biro sketch made from memory. 

Above: Sauna Reading Group #1, Friday 4th March, 2016, 7-9pm. Clockwise from top left: Simon Willems, Elina Suoyrjö, Hans Rosenström. All photos unless stated by Barry Sykes

In 2026 I held the first 'Sauna Reading Group', in the basement sauna of The Finnish Church in London. Forcing a reading group into a sauna was a deliberately absurb proposition that I hoped might help unpack the unspoken dynamics of each and be a fruitful way to explore ideas collectively.

The extracts we read are always only tangentially related to sauna. Perhaps about solitude, health, out of body experiences or small architecture. But that the heightened context (sweating in a small room together, with not much on) would mean each experience informs the other.

Above is a waterproof booklet I produced to explain the project to participants. you can read the PDF version HERE.

To date there have been ten Sauna Reading Groups, each has been a gathering of different invited guests and a new extract to discuss. The events follow a familiar routine over two hours, as we move through the sauna building. Each phase of the experience adds something to the discussion. 

Above: Sauna Reading Group #6, Friday 23rd August, 2019, 2-4pm. The Finnish Church, Rotherhithe, London. Reading an extract of Michael Lambek's 'How to Make Up One's Mind: Reason, Passion & Ethics in Spirit Possession'

L-R: Col Self (UK), Anja Borowicz (POL/UK), Harold Offeh (UK), Barry Sykes (UK). Photo courtesy, Salla Korteniemi / The Finnish Church.

Above: My visual note-taking from Sauna Reading Group #10, Tuesday 13th June, 2023, 6-9pm, Uusi Sauna, Helsinki, Finland. Reading an extract from Anna Talasniemi's Masters thesis on Finnish sauna culture, social nudity and inclusion.

Above: The first Sauna Reading Group hat, featuring embroidered logo, hand sewn felt pockets for pencil and notepaper. 

Above: The first and second Sauna Reading Group patches, given to participants. The second one made from a distorted version of the original file. Each succesive patch will continue to 'melt' as if affected by the heat, reflecting the morphing progress of the project. 

'Sauna as Studio'

As the Sauna Reading Group developed I was drawn to experiment with new elements that can be brought into the experience. Realising that the whole sauna experience can be a productive lens through which to examine social connection and self-reflection, And not just the sauna cabin, but the context it sits in, what makes it possible, the other elements that gather around it. This has led to a wider range of sauna activities, treating the sauna as I would my own studio or art space.

Above: 'Laugh-guss' at The Saunaverse festival, Hackney, London. Photos courtesy The Saunaverse.

This next led to an idea I called 'Laugh-guss' which combined my Laughter Yoga practice with the heat of the sauna and the format of German 'Aufguss' ritual. Aufguss is where a sauna host builds up hot steam that they theatrically whip around the cabin to an intense level. Swapping out steam for my fake laughter exercises I slowly take the participants from calm, deep breathing to frantic, arm-waving hysteria over the course of about twenty minutes. As is always my fascination with Laughter Yoga, you cannot tell the exact point where the fake laughter becomes real.

Above: 'Laugh-guss' sauna hat with notes and pencil pockets, clown nose holder and embroidered logo, that then informed the design of the Laugh-guss participant stickers, using various elements hand drawn by me. 

'Sauna Poses' sketches made in the sauna, of the people on the opposite bench. Made with watercolour pencils and blended with the sweat from my chest. Trying to capture the specific poses we take on in the heat, and also capturing how that affects how I draw under duress.

Above: Air drying clay and poured acrylic pigment.

The drawings have now informed a series of ceramic sculptures made in the studio. using the clay to add weight and sag to the forms, the drying or firing process referencing the ideas of heat and catharsis. The pigments referencing the vivid colours of thermal imaging cameras.

Above: Bisque fired ceramic. ikea pencil for scale.

A succesful Arts Council application for a 'Deevelop Your Creative Practice' grant has allowed me to acces a ceramics studio to experiment with firing and glazes for these sauna figures. The above is an early experiment, using slab construction techniques. roughly tearing and joining pieces of thin clay to approximate more figures in these prone, deflated, spent positions.

Above: UK Aufguss Championship 2024 trophies. Acrylic pigment on air drying clay, mounted on laser cut reclaimed oak bases.

In my role as Artist in Residence for the British Sauna Society ai was invited to design and produce three trophies for the 2024 UK Aufguss championships, held in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I adapted the techniques I'd been using to make three androgynous torsos, posed in mid-aufguss, wafting the hot air with a towel. The bases made using wood from a felled Oak tree, xut down in Greenwich, London. The wood now having distictive burnt aroma from the laser cutting. These processes also chosen to make something organic and sustainable, that could biodegrade responsibly at some point in the future.

Above: 'Sauna Life Drawing' at Sweheat Sauna, Dockland, London, UK

I have extended the drawing techniques I've been developing for my Sauna Poses sketches into a monthly drawing class at a London sauna. The emphasis is on thinking about how drawing captures a total experience; how the eye workes with the body; and how to use the relaxation of the sauna to abandon anxieties about accuracy or precision. 

I act as teacher and model, and explain my ideas and advice as we go. Drawing until we're too hot, cooling off them coming back in. This is always a very enjoyable, thoughtful, informative experience. more info HERE.

Feedback so far:"Relaxed", "Refreshing", "A surreal and brilliant evening!".

Above: My new 'Sauna As Studio' customised sauna hat. with pockets for sauna-proof business cards, the pocket's shape taken from a design for an experimental sauna by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. A pocket for pencil and paper on the other side is shapwed after the floor plan of the no longer extant Therme Europa Centre in Berlin. 

The Sauna As Studio project is an ongoing research process, with plans for a variety of activities. I am currently working on larger scale versions of my Sauna Poses sculptures and drawings, and planning sauna-based events with other practitioners in the UK and Scandinavia. To keep updated with these then do follow my Instagram and subscribe to my newsletter.