artist pedro reyes is staging a madhouse at art basel

Mexican artist Pedro Reyes's Sanitorium at Art Basel is offering the fair's visitors therapy that ranges from shamanism to sorcery.

by Hannah Ghorashi
05 December 2014, 11:00am

Currently on view at ICA Miami for Art Basel, Pedro Reyes' on-going performance project and utopian installation, the 'Sanatorium', enlists role-playing therapists and receptionists in treating victims of depression, loneliness, neurosis, family violence, suicide, and other social pathologies that encumber contemporary social life. Therapeutic success depends on a visitor's ability to suspend disbelief, encouraging individual agency in the creation of change. "It's similar to quackery," Reyes tells us, "but with a fundamental difference: in quackery the patient is led to believe a lie, while in the 'Sanatorium' you are told upfront that this is not real, and it is up to you to believe."

The 'Sanatorium' simulates a temporary mental health clinic, offering visitors an environment in which they can experience three of the sixteen available therapies that draw as much from theatre warm-up exercises, corporate coaching, and anger management exercises as they do from shamanism, sorcery, iconography, and even practical jokes. The Sanatorium is dedicated to the advancement of sociatry, an obsolete term for the science and art of healing society. "I realise that it may be too much to ask for a work of art to have such an impact," Reyes says. "But I see art as a warm-up phase that prepares us for change. What is most important to achieve is a mental state where we have the confidence to produce changes." We asked Reyes more about the change he'd like to see in the world, and received an education in return.

How did you come to create the Sanatorium?
The Sanatorium was conceived as a delivery system of placebos, therapies that put self-suggestion mechanisms into action. In practice, when you enter the Sanatorium you sign a paper acknowledging that this is not a real hospital, and these are not real therapists. Paradoxically, the mind loves cognitive dissonance — that is to say, being aware that you are telling yourself a lie won't necessarily prevent you from believing in it. The hypnotic adoption of an idea can be an effective way to initiate behavioural change.

Are the therapists played by actors?
In the Sanatorium, we play roles, using props such as lab coats to free us from the one-dimensional labels society assigns to us. While doctors use white coats, these are also used in schools when you go to the lab or in other work environments. So the white coats actually have more than one connotation, and there is room to play here. [Philosopher] Friedrich Schiller says that someone is only fully a person when she plays, and she has to play to fully become a person.

The visitor must suspend their disbelief when visiting. Because of this, do visitors almost become actors, playing the part of themselves?
Every therapy is like a small ritual that helps you reconcile your desires and change your mind-set. The problem is that you often access rituals in a religious or esoteric context, so you have to subscribe to those systems of beliefs. So what the Sanatorium attempts is to reproduce the same psychodynamics by conducting rituals without any ethnic specificity, without their aura of authenticity. It is not only about creating an alternative space from the health system; it's also an attempt to create alternative spaces to those provided by magic, religion, etc. because these places are also industries in which a few gurus concentrate huge followings.

Why do you describe the Sanatorium as a utopia?
In the early 90s, [curator and art historian] Harald Szeemann came to Mexico. I attended a week-long seminar where he presented some of his ground-breaking exhibitions in detail, but what left the biggest impression on me was his exhibition about Monte Verità, which was established in 1900 in Ascona, Switzerland, as a cooperative colony based on the principles of primitive socialism. It later became the Monte Verità Sanatorium. The members detested private property and practiced a strict standard of conduct based on vegetarianism and nudism. They rejected marriage, dress, party politics, and dogmas. One remarkable aspect of Monte Verità is how many artists spent time there, such as Isadora Duncan, Paul Klee, Hugo Ball, Mary Wigman, as well as intellectuals such as Carl Jung and Rudolph Steiner, among many others. So it was not only noteworthy for its utopian ideals but for the imagination it took to come up with it and what it inspired in these people.

What is your opinion on conventional modern therapy, for societal pathologies like stress, loneliness, hyper-stimulation?
These days therapy is a luxury for a lot of people, and every day there are more people in the world who need it but can't afford it. There is also a stigma attached to it that makes many people think that those who go to therapy must be crazy. Yet today, especially in cities, there is a vast population who could benefit from it. That's why I'm so interested in alternative structures in which human connection is paramount. You won't find it in prescription drugs or hospitals, but it's crucial to generate healthier communal life.

Do you believe that people have a greater agency than they realise in the creation of societal change?
[Educator and philosopher] Paulo Freire articulated this in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and his ideas had enormous penetration in Latin America from the 60s into the 70s and 80s. In his own words, the school system "teaches the need to be taught," when true learning has to be driven by the curiosity and desire of every person. Today we cannot expect to reach good results out of pure spontaneity nor pure planning. The Sanatorium is not conceived as a substitute for existing therapies and social services, but as a space for encounter, since so many of our everyday pathologies result from this lack of connection.


Text Hannah Ghorashi
Images courtesy the artist. 

Art Basel
Pedro Reyes