The Sauna Reading Group & 'Sauna as Studio'

Events and artworks 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

The project began in 2016, after an introduction to sauna culture in Scandinavia and Germany whilst on Artist Residencies. As my work was always interested in awkard social interaction ,authenticity and absurdityit was perhaps unsurprising that it felt like fertile territory.

I held my first Sauna Reading Group, at The Finnish Church in London. Forcing one format into another (the reading group into the sauna) was a deliberately absurb proposition but one that I hoped might help unpack the unspoken dynamics of each. And be a way to conveniently and quickly explore ideas collectively. In fact it worked very well, the slow pace and contemplative mood an ideal context to study short texts together.

The extracts we read are rarely about sauna per se. Subjects have ranged from illness to architecture, hermits to out of body experience. They are chosen to be only tangentially related to the sauna experience, but that our foregrounded behaviour (sweating together, in a small room, with very little on) can't help but make us reflect on our own experience in the moment as a form of action research.

Above: whiteboard notes made in the sauna whilst we spoke. I quickly found out whiteboards, marker pens and 90 degree heat don't mix well. I have since taken notes with pen and paper, which then retains a nice buckled texture as it dries out from the humidity.

Each one has been a different group of invited guests and a new extract to discuss. Many have been held at The Finnish Church in London, though I have hosted some in other saunas. 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 #2, 27th January 2018. Scottish Sculpture Workshop, Lumsden, Scotland

I was invited by Scottish Sculpture Workshop to run a Sauna Reading Group for their current intake of International Artists in Residence.We read an extract from 'Solitude' by Dr Anthony Storr, selected from the SSW Edge Effects Reading Library. We used the sauna built by artist Mari Keski Korsu from local whisky barrels that sits in the SSW yard.

Above: Sauna Reading Group #3, Friday 2nd March 2018 3-5pm, The Finnish Church in London. Clockwide from left, Vesta Kroese (NL), Marlene Haring (AUT), Barry Sykes, (UK). Discussing Marlene Haring's 'Report to an Academy' 2015.

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: Sauna Reading Group #6, It is traditional to follow a Sauna Reading Group with a post-discussion discussion over a drink, ideally near a body of water. It always seems neccessary to unpack the experience together.

Above: Sauna Reading Group #7, Friday 24th January 2020, 2-4pm. The Finnish Church in London. Reading the essay 'Bodies in Heat' by John Christ, from a paper by Pia Lindman about her project 'Hybrid Sauna' that placed a functioning two-person confessional-style sauna in the courtyard of PS1, New York. Attending: Mine Erişir (TUR), Olivia Glasser (UK), Wendy Liu (CHN), Mika Meskinen (FI), Kimmo Raitio (FI), Bethany Wells (UK), Barry Sykes (UK).

Above: Sauna Reading Group #8, Friday 21st February 2020, 12-2pm. The Finnish Church in London. Reading the essay 'The Word Made Fresh: Mystical Encounter and the New Weird Divine' by Elvia Wilk , published in e-flux journal #92. Attending: Sarah Browne (IRL), Lucy Sames (UK). Natalie Boobis (UK), Barry Sykes (UK). 

As the project becomes a more formalised idea I am interested in what other elements gather around it. For this session I produced my own version of a traditional sauna hat, embroidered with an early attempt at branding. Simple felt hats are used in Finnish sauna to stop the head from over heating in the sauna and to keep it warm when you are resting outside.

Above: Sauna Reading Group #8. Sweat soaked notes and laminated extract. I don't laminate any more as I try to reduce the carbon footprint of my practice, and it's fine if the paper gets as buckled, torn and damp as our notes do. 

Above: Sauna Reading Group #9, Friday 9th September 2022, 2-4pm, Beaconsfield, London. Reading an extract from 'Belonging: A Culture of Place' by bell hooks, 1990. Attending: Alasdair Hopwood (UK), Charlotte Troy (UK). Mélodie Roulaud (FR), Barry Sykes (UK).

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

Sauna as Studio.

As the Sauna Reading Group develops I am drawn to experiment with new elements that can be brought into the experience. The merchandise like the hats and patches always felt like sculptural objects as I developed them, and It seemed like there were more ways to use the format of the sauna ritual to experiment with hosting, interaction and self-reflection.

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. 

Above: A small clay figure posed as if sat in the heat of a sauna. 

As well as these workshops I was keen to develop something more in keeping with the solitary contemplation of the sauna experience, where you may only reach out to one or two other people. I was becoming more aware of affects of sauna on the body and wanted to find other ways to capture this. I started by using some air-drying clay in my studio to attempt to mimic the languid, resting poses you take on when sat on the bench under the affects of the heat. 

Working quickly, the clay would sag and droop even further under its own weight, and become less pliable as it dried out in the atmosphere. Once they had dried fully I began to baste them with dulited pigment, the colours based loosely on heat map camera footage. the liquid finding routes down the body like beads of sweat.

Each of these figures is only about 20cm tall, made using lengths of rough 2x4" timber as the sauna bench.

As research for the sauna poses sculptures I began drawing on the sauna, sketching fellow users through the steam. I could reassure them that with the humidity, my poor vision without my glasses and the way the heat affetced the materials, that there was no chance they would be recognised. In fact I valued all these limitations on the process as it meant each drawing couldn't help reflecting the context it was made in. To add to this expternal influence I started using watercolour pencils, that I could smear and blend with the sweat wiped from my brow and chest. The sauna yet again adapted to another function, this time a life-drawing studio with the benches working as easel, plinth and classroom.

As I don't wear my glasses in the sauna I couldn't really see the figures or my drawing clearly, and could only work for a minute or so as the pencils would become too hot to hold. But these drawings are not about portraits or accuracy. In fact they are another attempt by me to show the value in error and approximation, and an acknowledgment of the impossibility of fully capturing a moment like this.

I continue to explore these potentials of sauna to examine human interaction and experience. I have plans to do more of each of the activities I've shown above: including reading groups on intimacy, nudity and bodily functions; laugh-guss; clay sculpting; and drawing. There are plans for other events based in saunas and a research trip around Scandinavia to meet other practitioners and test out these ideas.  

If you are interested in being involved in any of the above do get in contact.