Art

Can Art Replace Therapy?

Getting urban therapy at Pedro Reyes' “Sanatorium” (2011). (All images by the author)

Welcome to New York City’s newest treatment center. You pay fifteen dollars to enter a desolate concrete basement filled with men and women in lab coats. They hand you pillows to sit on and advise you to close your eyes and visualize your problems, to later be treated by an assortment of self-improvement exercises. Mexican artist Pedro Reyes is the Gestalt and Marxist-influenced mastermind behind this mental ward, and he’s here to solve all your city-induced psychological stress.

Reyes and Stillspotting NYC, the Guggenheim’s new architecture and urban studies program, have partnered up to host, in their words, an “unexpected, short, experimental treaments” within New York’s existing therapy landscape. This Sanatorium, curated by David van der Leer, aims to provide “urban therapy” for NYC participants, locals and tourists alike. Pedro Reyes attempts to offer a quiet moment for the overwhelming, chaotic concrete jungle that is a typical weekend in New York.

The two-hour therapy sessions might provide a good substitute for some, but it wasn’t working for me. Aside from being plagued with self-doubt as to why I was there instead of the X-MEN: First Class premiere, conceptualizing how long two hours of this would be was the first problem to come to mind.

Reyes is known for creating works that address social issues in his immediate environment, often requiring audience participation. In a response to the high death toll caused by gun shootings in Culican, Mexico, Reyes collected and melted down over 1,500 guns for his “Palas por Pistolas” (2008). The artist then forged the steel into 1,500 shovels. The shovels were distributed to public schools to aid in the planting of 150 trees. Here, Sanatorium attempts the same community-based, relational aesthetics-inflected spirit. Unfortunately, the piece was not as beautifully simple and methodically planned as Reyes’s previous works.

Since I live in northern New Jersey, I had to take three different modes of transportation in order to attend Reyes’s performance. Highly anticipating Guggenheim’s first urban studies program of this year, passing large formations of fresh trash for forty minutes on the NJ Transit Line could only enhance my “urban living” experience.

Exhibition view of the transformation from warehouse to sanatorium.

Immediately upon entering the MetroTech center, a large warehouse space on Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn that is home to the installation, a woman dressed in a white nurse’s uniform referred me to another woman sitting at a table next to a manual typewriter. There was a list of sixteen different stations, each of which was set up with an activity that promised to cure me of all cosmopolitan distress. Trying to determine what I should be prescribed for the next two hours, she inquired, “Do you have any feelings of anxiety, nervousness or tiredness?”

I thought back to half an hour before: after three separate trains (and fighting an unexpected raging bladder since the second), a man had aggressively shouted about how bad his feet smelled. Eager to share that the last time he took off his shoes on a train he sent seventeen people to the hospital, he threatened to expose the gamy toes if his fellow passengers did not move out of his way. Being shouted at, especially while pressed between strangers, is a regular part of life in a city where sensations like anxiety or nausea can pop up at any moment. For that very reason, I told my concerned Florence Nightingale that all was well, that I was doing okay. After agreeing to sign a waiver that states that I understand that Sanatorium is not an actual therapy session, I was sent to the pseudo-waiting room for a Friday afternoon quasi-lobotomy.

Maja providing fruit for thought.

I attended the event with my boyfriend, so we were first sent to Couple’s Therapy. Here, we met Maja, who asked us kindly to pick a fruit that best characterizes our different personalities. While this may seem like an easy task, day-old fruit is surprisingly difficult to identify with. Being aware that your partner does not eat any fruit other than grossly ripe bananas, the exercise seemed compromised from the beginning. We chose a banana and a mango, out of which Maja then deftly made a smoothie. We drank the product out of two shot glasses.

Maja pouring our smoothies, one shot glass at a time!

“How does this smoothie relate to your relationship?” Maja asked.

We babbled a few things about compromise and trying new things, mostly relating to my boyfriend trying a mango, but we both thought the question was difficult to answer. Anyway, we couldn’t sustain a discussion for the duration of the twenty-minute session, so we started chatting. It turns out Maja is a grad student studying organizational psychology. We asked about her accent, found out she’s from Croatia, and we had a ten-minute conversation about that. She told us how she got involved with the Stillspotting project. We kept chatting, and by the time the installation’s large chimes signaled it was time for our next activity, we had had a pleasant conversation with a really friendly stranger.

My curated exhibit — baby dinosaurs included.

While this might not have been the point of the exercise (we didn’t really break any new ground in couple’s therapy), it was still relaxing. Plus we got a smoothie out of it, albeit one served in a shot glass.

My next therapeutic treatment was a one-on-one counseling session, where I was able to “curate an exhibition about your life in the city at The Museum of Hypothetical Lifetimes.” With an array of miscellaneous tchotchkes displayed against the far wall, my new psychoanalyst, Matt (a music and technology student) asked a series of highly specific questions on my interactions with museums and galleries.

Have you been to a gallery or museum?”
“Yes.”
“What did you see there?”
“Art?”
“Okay, we’re going to do something similar here.”

As I happily picked objects that summarized my immediate hopes and dreams, i.e. having babies and leaving this venue in time for dinner, and I placed the tiny objects in a small model museum, the chimes rang again, announcing that it was group therapy time. At this point, we were invited to go to the basement of the MetroTech center, where Mel Kimura Bucholtz would calmly guide us through an hour of his “Tuning Effect” session.

Submitting to lying on the floor with strangers.

While it was soothing to listen to an Alan Arkin-type gentleman guide us through group meditation in a neon-lit basement, I am still not clear as to what the Reyes’ intent was. My experience slurping on smoothies and organizing miniature troll dolls did not seem relevant to the harrowing experience that New York presents us with. Other than sharing a geographical location, Sanatorium hardly reflected on the potential difficulties and issues that arise with living in an urban environment.

I attended the Stillspotting event to experiment with my forever-fickle relationship with New York. Instead, what I experienced was one pleasant conversation. I didn’t really get much else out of the activities. I didn’t gain a new outlook or leave becalmed. As for the work’s lofty goals, Reyes didn’t quite succeed. But if you need a nice chat with a friendly grad student, I highly recommend the Sanatorium. In New York you could probably find that for free, though. Gamy toes included.

Pedro Reyes’ stillspotting NYC work Sanatorium will be open until June 12 at the MetroTech center located on 325 Jay Street in downtown Brooklyn. Check the website for tickets and appointment times.

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