After our recent visit to the much hailed documenta (13) art exhibition in Kassel, Hassia, Germany, we had an interesting discussion on the bus while driving home. It was about an exhibit by the artist Pedro Reyes called Sanatorium.
In a nutshell, Sanatorium is about using methods of psychotherapy to make people (patients? subjects? participants? audience?) aware of “hypothetical lifetimes”. Examples are the Epitaph exercise, where a person gets the opportunity to think up what might be written on their tombstone; or the Goodoo exercise, which turns around the idea of the Voodoo doll to send positive events to other people.
The controversy on our bus was about the question whether Reyes had the right to “abuse” people in need of help for artistic purposes. Although participants were clearly made aware that what they underwent was actually an artistic, not a medical treatment; and although those who deliberately chose to undergo the treatment probably expected more of an artistic than a healing experience – I can understand a certain discomfort or a feeling that “this isn’t right”.
But I also think that this feeling is part of the effect intended by the artist. And I believe it is legitimate to make artistic use – which is always an ab-use or mis-use – of the tools and language of psychotherapy. The job of an artist is to play with the tools of society, pull them out of their context, combine them in new ways in order to make us aware of them.
The difference – and point of controversy – in the case of the Sanatorium is that the artist uses human feelings as his paint and canvas. But haven’t we seen artists do this before?
What it comes down to is that there are certain domains that we just don’t want to become too aware of, and that we don’t like artists to play with because we don’t want them to be de-mystified. Therefore we have a corral of things that we like to exclude from potentially corrosive treatment like satire, art, or even rational dissection.
The corral is in our mind and in society as a whole. I don’t call it by the name that jumps to everybody’s mind, “taboo zone”, because it evokes this image of frustrated people who are crippled by suppressed and unsatisfied desires which only need to be confessed and set free to turn them into happy campers. Which is beside the point because – different from Freund’s late 19th century Vienna – our contemporary societies allow to quench most mainstream desires. The corral, in contrast, is for things that we need to believe in order to stay healthy both as an individual and as a society. It contains such matters of belief like the efficacy of medical treatment, religion, and true love.
Artists are naturally drawn to the corral. Because touching the issues that we want to protect is a great way to raise attention and controversy. Just remember Jeff Koons whose kitschy enactment of love “made in heaven” with porn diva Cicciolina propelled him into the top list of contemporary artists.
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