Over the last two weeks, a nondescript, cavernous storefront in downtown Brooklyn that was once home to Sid’s Hardware, local purveyor of Christmas ornaments and power tools, hosted a Guggenheim-organized pop-up installation by Mexican artist Pedro Reyes. Above the foyer, a sign in periwinkle neon reading “cashier” was all that loyal shoppers might have recognized of the evacuated retailer. Sanatorium, Reyes’s interactive piece in the form of an ersatz mental clinic, called out to those in need of an emotional or mental tune-up.
Those in need or simply curious could book an appointment online or simply walk in for a therapy session administered by a team of nearly 70 attendants and comprising a selection of activities or tests, offering services ranging from a measurement of couples’ compatibility to a deep tuning session, a method created and led by Mel S. Kimura-Bucholtz to address underlying emotional issues like trauma through focused meditation on senses and mental visualization. Unsurprisingly, it takes nearly nothing to caricature an impersonal healthcare environment, Reyes told A.i.A. Here the key ingredients were fluorescent lighting, monochromatic surfaces and the lab coat, a nearly “magical” uniform that professional caregivers know how to exploit, Reyes said. While certainly all masquerades of sorts, none of Reyes’s therapies are disingenuous or impersonal. Sanatorium was intended to deliver real healing, though a successful treatment relied entirely on how much a participant invested in the piece: “The Sanatorium is a delivery system for placebos, a set of tools, tricks and techniques where you activate your own healing processes. These are all techniques you can teach yourself,” the artist told A.i.A. Seemingly vacuous on the surface, at its best Sanatorium triggered a display of raw and often tender human content.
The artist has worked extensively with group psychotherapy and dynamics over the last decade, with pieces such as Alien Report, a group activity performed at the ICA Boston in 2006, in which urban youth of differing backgrounds confronted the question of being alien in America by imagining extraterrestrial alter egos through meditation and by actualizing that identity through community canvassing. Building on this previous work, Reyes’ Sanatorium sought to confront potentially unsettling issues, revitalizing art through the psychic energies of performance, and to abandon institutional formats like fairs and museums. At the Sanatorium, Reyes explained, “We let people have access to a creative process using their own personal narratives, so they can take the art experience with them.”
As the inaugural effort of a two-year outreach program of events and installations–“stillspotting nyc”–conceived by the Guggenheim’s Assistant Curator of Architecture and Urban Studies, David van der Leer, Sanatorium appears to have worked. “People were leaving with a different expression on their faces, as if they really picked something up,” van der Leer observed. The Dutch-born curator hopes the work returned its audience to the pressures of urban life refreshed.
If city living causes its share of mental pathologies, anxieties and stress, van der Leer is proposing something of an antidote with stillspotting nyc, a two-year initiative meant to explore, identify and study restorative oases or “stillspots,” curated events that can counteract the hectic pace and sometimes gnawing effects of city life. More than an escape, however, Sanatorium brings the urban jungle, with its seductive tangle of disappointments and desires, into intense focus.
In comparison to other commonly available curatives for the big-city blues, like a spa treatment or a yoga session, Reyes argued that the price of admission ($15) was a great deal. Sanatorium asked for much more than a ticket, however. It encouraged spilling of secrets, reflections on loved ones and on desires and frustrations, and, perhaps most notably, listening to others. While the treatments were individual, they occurred in a group setting, so others could comment and share reactions.
Sanatorium pulled the audience into a personal and perhaps uncomfortable interaction with the work, and by extension the artist. In this way, Reyes crafted a provocation not unlike that created by the early work of James Lee Byars or Dan Graham. At the same time it relied, like other pieces by Reyes, on a tradition of psychodrama indebted to sociologist Jacob Moreno, in which patients explore emotional issues and internal conflicts through dramatization, role-playing and audience participation. If there is any measure of success for this technique, it may be that even a New Yorker’s hard, self-involved shell can crack under calculated conditions and reveal something else: “I am really ecstatic and moved because we all have an excess capacity to help each other and those participating in Sanatorium really got into it,” Reyes exclaimed. With this engrossing installation, Reyes and van der Leer have pointed to a project whose promise may lie farther afield. Such an arts clinic, if taken seriously, could emerge in any community and connect to any public, which is more than a tonic at a time when art must define its place in the sustainable future of all environments.