"When the idea of winning is empty, men of integrity may fill it up. When it is full, but empty of integrity, then the only interest is in disappointment." - Within the Context of No Context
A Japanese woman in a nurse outfit greeted me as I entered Pedro Reyes's Sanatorium, an off-site project of the Guggenheim. She asked why I had come and what my problems were. I told her I had come for inspiration and that my scar hurt. Her eyes widened. She circled off three "treatments" from the list of sixteen.
"After this," she said, "you must feel better."
She sounded a poorly-designed gong, and I crossed the airy industrial space to my first stop: The Department of Mudras. I sat in a circle of chairs with three other visitors (one of the pluses of the exhibit was its sparse attendance) as our facilitator Crystal led us through breathing exercises and hand postures called mudras meant to evoke positive mental states. Crystal had flawless skin and kind eyes. She knew very little about mudras.
Next up was Urban Secrets. While the attendent turned her back, I wrote my secret on a piece of paper, rolled it up, and stuffed it in a bottle. The attendent put my bottle into a big tub filled with other secrets, and she took one of them out and handed it to me. The confession - in scrolly, girly writing - struck me as terribly banal. A marriage engagement, an out-of-town visit, a kiss. Then again, my secret was also terribly banal.
I felt a momentary uptick of empathy: we all have secrets, they're all banal, we're all just adorable babies. I asked if I could take my new secret home, and the lady said, "No, we save them." She pointed to a messy pile of discarded secrets. "But since you're just one person, roll it up and put it back inside the bottle. We'll reuse it."
There was time to kill so I went to the desk labelled "Heraldry Mint," where I chatted with a young college student who helped me use magazine clippings and a glue stick to build my family crest.
"What is the point of Sanatorium?" I asked her.
"It's supposed to be calming for stressed out New Yorkers."
She told me to write my family motto beneath our crest. I came up with the following, because in my family we say what we think, even when it's tactless and cannot possibly benefit anyone:
For the last treament I descended to the darkened lower level. A group of us sat on pillows as a man named Mel (I think) led us through something called Tuning. It was supposed to put us into an alpha state, which was a receptive brain wave pattern between the beta state of being awake and the theta state of dreaming. We moved our eyes around behind closed lids and imagined problems receeding from us and pleasurable sensations sucking us in. Mel had a great, droning voice and yawned often. At the end he asked if our problems had seemed to recede, but unfortunately the problem I picked was my scar, which was still there. He said that if we wanted we could have his business card.
The Guggenheim website calls this piece "a balance between reality and parody," which might be code for "the artist is hedging his bets - if something seems sloppy, he can say it's just parodic." It bothers me when details aren't right. Parody should be more true than the original thing.
Parody should also be vicious, but the overwhelming quality of Sanitorium was kindness. In retrospect, I believe this was its redeeming feature. The kindness stuck around, even as I walked home eating my mango on a stick. As a stressed out New Yorker, I guess I'd rather experience warm confusion than more cold expertise. Cold expertise is what gave me my scar.