Above: Sauna Reading Group #1, clockwise from top left: Simon Willems, Elina Suoyrjö, Hans Rosenström, photo by Barry Sykes

Discussion series

As an extension of my research into Hermits and issues of retreating and interaction I am hosting a series of invite-only discussions in the tiny basement sauna at the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe.

The Sauna Reading Group is a deliberately awkward, absurd proposition:

- Forcing one traditional format (reading group) into another (sauna ritual)
- Asking participants to think and talk whilst sweating it out in 85°C humidity
- Considering isolation at a communal event
- Discussing behaviour, mysanthropy, idealism, ethics, society, all whilst in a damp swimming costume
- Breaking conversation every few minutes to cool off in the shower then rest area before returning to the heat.
- Laminating all printed material in advance
- Taking notes on a whiteboard propped up inside the sauna cabin.

However the hope is that this internal logic, however counter-intuitive, may offer some appropriate insight. My interest is in also in embodying some of these hermit-related questions in the very idea, logistics and experience of a Sauna Reading Group: The sauna cabin as a kind of hermitage; this outpost of Finnish culture in London as a kind of retreat; The raked bench seating as ideal layout for discussion; the sweating in gloomy close proximity whilst wearing very little as either a demanding social interaction or welcome contemplative indulgence; the high temperature creating an unavoidable awareness of body and mind functioning together.

The Finnish Church in Rotherhithe is also an appropriate setting as it was originally Christian monks of the 2nd and 3rd centuries who identified themselves as the first Hermits, enforcing self-denial, solitude and asceticism to gain greater awareness and focus.

Guidelines for participants:

- Each meeting of the Sauna Reading Group will be with a different group of invited participants, selected for their interests tangentally related to these themes.

- Each event is based around a selected reading but ideally broadens out to wider related issues. I'm interested to hear your experiences of detachment or isolation in your own work and research, and your take on mine.

- Drinking water will be provided but feel free to bring your own. it is important to stay hydrated

- Please bring a towel

- As this Finnish custom is enacted in the UK there is an appropriate compromise to the usually expected nudity in the sauna, so swimming costumes are suggested.

- Rest assured, there will be no photographic documentation of participants whilst in the sauna.

- This is a discussion but feel free to stay silent if feeling appropriately relaxed/overheated/untalkative.

- After the sauna we will then move to a nearby pub or cafe for a discussion or debrief about the preceding discussion. First drink on me.

However, each of these guidelines is up for negotiation, depending on the dynamics of each group.

Sauna Reading Group is part of my wider research project 'The International Hermit Conference', which looks at instances of detachment and escape, interaction and immersion, solitude and retreats into architecture, using a purposely instinctive and subjective process that has so far included residencies, events, performances, sculpture, film, found objects and feedback forms.


Above: Whiteboard, whiteboard pens, laminated texts and images, towel, from Sauna Reading Group #1. Photo by Barry Sykes

Sauna Reading Group #1. Friday 4th March, 2016 7-8.30 pm, The Finnish Church in Rotherhithe

Simon Willems (UK, Artist, Painter, PhD candidate looking at Hermits in C20th painting)
Hans Rosenström
(Finland, Artist, often incorporating sound and architecture)
Elina Suoyrjö (Finland, Curator, PhD candidate interested in feminist curatorial strategies, affect emotion)

'The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit'
GQ.com, 2014