Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

June 6, 2011

City Sickness

Pedro Reyes' Sanatorium


Art, Articles, Pedro Reyes, Urbanism

Sanatorium, the inaugural exhibition in the Guggenheim museum’s Stillspotting NYC series of off-site programs, opened in downtown Brooklyn just steps from the intense bustle and hawking of street vendors and discount retailers on Fulton Street Mall and a few blocks from the Brooklyn House of Detention. Created by Pedro Reyes and housed in an unrented space in the Metrotech Center provided by Forest City Ratner, Sanatorium is a “temporary clinic” designed to treat urban ills. It offers a number of therapeutic balms for the anxiety and depression caused city living.

No matter how comfortable we—art enthusiasts, designers, or members of the Prozac nation—become with the language of mental illness the term “sanatorium” still has the capacity to unsettle, evoking images of nineteenth century institutions and lobotomized patients. Reyes provokes with his title, but the experience is more stylized self-help than anything sinister. Volunteer “therapists” wearing white lab coats and wielding clipboards greet visitors, guiding them to a reception desk. There, a short consultation results in the assignment of three treatments from a list of sixteen individual and group therapies. It’s at this point that Sanatorium visitors are transformed from museumgoers to patients.

he shift is subtle, a trick as much of the mind as with the architecture. The Metrotech exhibition space is a former Ace Hardware store and the Guggenheim has done little more than hung some signage, set up folding tables, and laid out some industrial carpet remnants. A banal water cooler adds to the light pastiche of health care service tropes on top of worn linoleum and retail striped bare. The brain fills in the intuitional constraints. Sitting on a hard chair in the “waiting room” pacifies the spirit.

Under a ubiquitous fluorescent glare it’s amazing how quickly the conceits of connoisseurship fall away. Gestalt psychology, life coaching, and confession replace taste, judgment, and consumption. At the Philosophical Casino, patients ask questions of oracles shaped like oversized, multi-sided dice, each facet tagged with texts from Greek, Renaissance, German and “typographical” philosophers. A volunteer therapist assigned to monitor this station explains that a treatment’s success is based not as much on any singular interpretation as “a willingness to be open.”

Reyes trusts that even the most crusty and cynical New Yorker will succumb to therapy and join in what is essentially a participatory performance piece. A treatment entitled The Great Game of Power repackages theater warm-up exercises into “a spatial analysis of the hidden forces that control Brooklyn.” Imagine well-dressed strangers unabashedly physicalizing themselves as machines. Or, asked to vent their innermost frustrations with the city, patients treated by The Vaccine against Violence, beat a black canvas effigy.

Perhaps the most effective treatment is The Tuning Effect, a 45-minute group therapy session. Led by Mel S. Kimura-Bucholtz, (in the 1970s he founded the Esalen-like Interface Educational Foundation with the help of several timely intellectuals, including Buckminster Fuller), visitors sit on the floor pillows with closed eyes and acquiesce to sensory recalibration—a stress reduction exercise. The experience, like many of the treatments, is sanitized from any religious or cultish flourishes.

In a conversation, Reyes mentioned his surprise at how the volunteers embrace their roles as therapists. (This group consist of artists, teachers, and poets who are for the part not trained medical professionals.) He considers their willingness to help an untapped resource of societal counseling. But even as Reyes imagines the potential for surplus empathy to heal the world, Sanatorium’s biggest weakness is its limited reach.

Nearby Fulton Street Mall is one of Brooklyn’s densest, non-white shopping destinations. Given that a report of the Surgeon General to the Department of Health and Human Services found that minorities have less access to mental health services and are less likely to seek care, there’s a missed opportunity to provoke a dialogue and engage in some of the tougher questions surrounding urban life and mental illness. The main aesthetic of Reyes’ work relies on the homogenizing effect of western medicine. His social critique seems to be taking a jaundiced eye to a privileged society’s embrace of self-improvement as lifestyle. But what would happen if patients with a less neutral relationship to health care challenged the dominant power structure established in the piece? Would the self-help lingo and psychological inside jokes still make sense? For all the positioning of the project to offer “urban therapies” and for the Guggenheim’s Stillspotting NYC mission to take programming to the streets, Sanatorium fails to address the population right outside its Metrotech doors.