Thriving, Puckering, Adoring, Warping, Glowing, Scorching: Soft Baroque’s Sun City

Tanning salons — Eternal Summer, Brazil Bronze, Healthy Glow, Sun City — and their offerings — sprays and sun-bed sessions in shades of ‘Exotic Dancer’, ‘WASP Housewife’, ‘Skinny Tan’, or ‘Chocolate Brown’ (“great for body builders and ballroom dancers!”) — rose in popularity through the 1970s and 80s

Tanning salons — Eternal Summer, Brazil Bronze, Healthy Glow, Sun City — and their offerings — sprays and sun-bed sessions in shades of ‘Exotic Dancer’, ‘WASP Housewife’, ‘Skinny Tan’, or ‘Chocolate Brown’ (“great for body builders and ballroom dancers!”) — rose in popularity through the 1970s and 80s; the experience being likened to going into orbit, and sun-beds hailed as the healthy alternative to sunbathing, as the UV light “only let the good rays in”. Any fears relating to indoor tanning had less to do with the potential of leathery skin, malignant melanomas, and death (“What’s a little skin cancer, anyway, when you’ve smoked four packs a day for most of your life?”), which could be abated in the interests of ‘sexy good health’, and more to do with the potential of what had been a slow, communal, outdoor pursuit becoming private, optimised, and feeding into a growing culture of instant gratification and disconnection.

Apollo, the Greek god of seemingly everything, including the sun (after Helios’ legacy was cruelly and lazily sidelined) inspired Louis XIV to appoint himself as “the Sun King”, and commission the Fountain of Apollo at Versailles. The fountain, and nomenclature, symbolised the sun’s power over nature, as a life-giving force, a potentially destructive element, and as a site of worship — all qualities that Louis XIV humbly saw as being reflected in his own sphere of influence. But defining your status and identity according to your proximity to the sun isn’t exclusive to self-satisfied royals; actors, musicians, stars of reality TV and politicians (and those who move between the two), still seek to envelop themselves in a golden glow. Jersey Shore’s Snooki, who is Chilean-American, describes tan as her “race”, a Donatella-Versace-level tan communicates camp pomp and circumstance; tanning is associated with a dated expression of hotness, but it also has something of an an enviable laissez-faire vibe. It’s hard to deny the draw of reclining on a lounger, facing straight into the sun.

In Marsèll’s limonaia, the Italian term for a conservatory where lemon trees are grown, Soft Baroque have installed a sun lounger, which sits on a plush carpet, as if in a suburban salon, surrounded by a bright, yellow glow. Made from a wooden body covered in patches of polyurethane rubber, which were poured at pressure points corresponding with a relaxed body — where wet swimwear hits the surface, or sweat trickles down from our supine bodies — the lounger is covered in Marsèll’s classic yellow calfskin leather, which acts as an ersatz for human skin, puckering as it’s pulled tight over rubber patches, reflecting the possible, probable future of our skin.

The UV rays that emanate from the sun, and sun-beds, stimulate growth, can be used as a treatment for disease, and sustains all forms of life. Grow lights imitate the life-giving potential of the sun, installed in domestic grow cabinets and ‘stealth grow boxes’, which take the form of wardrobes, elaborate desk set-ups, and chests of drawers, emitting a Repo Man glow. The UV-A and UV-B light improve THC and CBD production in cannabis, and encourages plants to produce their own protective ‘sunscreen’. The artificial blue or toxic magenta glow associated with grow-ops reinforces chlorophyll production, strong, healthy stems and leaves. This relationship between nature and technology, DIY solutions and design, is reflected in the materiality of the pieces that furnish the basement of the Marcèll space. A hybrid of an homage to grow cabinets, Donald Judd’s panelled furniture, and the idea of taking a big Exacto Knife to IKEA’s single-sheet products, Soft Baroque’s bamboo wardrobe, acrylic and stone plinths, and aluminium table are sliced wth drastic cuts, plants growing out from gaps that emanate an artificial glow.

The baby blue log chair is the exception to the rule, a reflection of their affection for log furniture, which is seen as dorky, but is an economical and environmentally friendly approach to making furniture with wood. Log furniture makes use of the shoots and branches that grow quickly from tree stumps, which are often used in developing thicker brush in a forest, or cultivating hedgerows, but aren’t used for timber because of their unpredictable scale and form. It has a strong connection to its raw material form, and is a symbol of growth — of the branches, and understanding how to work productively with your environment.

The potential of sun-dappled, perfect weather is sold to us via films, tv, literature, billboards, perfume ads and promotional videos encouraging us to move to California — where reinvention, prosperity and fulfilment are only a hike away, and wildfires burn through forests, towns and across highways every year. SAD lamps, introduced as a light therapy to help ease Seasonal Affective Disorder, mimic the bright morning sunlight that’s lacking in winter, or the year-round sun of CA. Thought to encourage our brains to produce less melatonin and more serotonin, they improve moods and boost energy levels; but like the sun, staring directly at them is a bad idea. As it creates and sustains life, the sun holds an equal potential to be destructive. Droughts and wildfires, escalating with the climate crisis, decimate land and destabilise communities; melting, bubbling, bleaching, and scorching materials, leaving behind dry earth. Soft Baroque’s installation of stacked loungers atop a coir carpet (like the material of a doormat) with patches painted in chroma green (the shade used in digital cleaning out, substitution, and generic ‘green screen’ backgrounds) faces up to a balloon light — like those used to flood construction sites — in an homage to the sun’s ability to warp, blister, and dissolve. A formal acknowledgement of the force of the sun, stacked pyramid-like, the Tan structure evokes pre-Christian sites of worship; setting up sunbathers as reclining, vulnerable offerings, lovingly facing towards the object of their affection, sweating like pigs. Meanwhile, a TV plays a 7-second video on loop. A close-up of the surface of the sun, which bubbles and writhes for its audience, transfixed, as they sit back in the aluminium lounge chair — folded from a single sheet, its form slumped as if it’s melting before the screen.

Light lends drama to what we see. A defining feature of architecture — from Stonehenge and the pyramids, to Modernist villas and the accidental ‘Manhattanhenge’ — the sun casts shade, shadows and spotlights, emphasises features, structures and corners, it can create a steamy mirage, and a transfixing glow. An understanding of the arc of the sun was critical for ancient cultures, who depended on that knowledge for successful harvests, and it defined the form and orientation of buildings and ceremonial structures. Summer solstice — when the sun reaches its highest point, and, in the pagan religion, the summer king gives way to the winter king — is a turning point that’s significant across time and religious beliefs. The ‘standing still’ of the sun is thought to open doors between worlds, release magic, and allow the barriers between humans and spirits to fall. People gather in forests, on mountains, or among ancient structures, they draw protective rings around cattle and crops, engage in communal worship and public theatre. Like sunflowers, crowds engage in their own romance with the sun.

At the highest point of Sun City, where light dapples the room, Soft Baroque’s dancing armchair faces the alter, a throne performing a trance-like wiggle at its central sacred brass object. Playing on the tradition, and interior architecture of sites of worship, Soft Baroque set up a space for relaxation, where wheat grows inside lipos wood chests and carbon fibre hi-performance vases; brass, cut with a chainsaw-like motion from sheets, is bent into soft, graphic curves, formed into a bookstand, coat hook and candlestick, a series of disturbed religious objects. Referencing Quaker and Shaker traditions — the Tufnol Shaker chair made from carved plastic, with layers of compressed material revealed like woodgrain — known (and fetishised) for their egalitarianism and belief in simplicity, conservatism and puritanical nature, combining of principles of design and religion. The furniture in the space takes on some of their ideals of form, and exaggerates them to symbolic breaking point; taking high-minded ideas of function and turning them into inflated decoration, taking materials associated with decorating suped-up cars, and turning them into functional objects. While the furniture in Sun City is animated in narrative and form/structure, engaging in a sort-of theatre, it’s fundamentally rooted in an empathic relationship to material. Responding to the needs, reality and magic of how metal bends and leather curves, how wood, stone or plastic can be carved, Soft Baroque give in to their material, as if laying back in the sun.

Published on the occasion of Soft Baroque’s solo show, SUN CITY, at Marsèll, Milan, curated by PIN UP magazine.