Abby King / January 30th, 2017
What comes to mind when you visualize the word, healing? Is it bent knees in church, a softly lit vanilla-bean-aroma filled therapist office, or the touch of another person’s hand as they turn over your playing or tarot card? Do you feel skepticism or relief? Healing seems to exist in the middle place between medical health and palm reading. Search for the word and you may find yourself in a Himalayan salt cave, or in Chelation therapy getting shit pumped from your blood. I can’t defend these practices but I can’t discount them either. There is an implied fulfillment I can’t get down with, a return to health. Are we ever truly healthy? Is health a white woman holding up her salad with a smile? To free associate for a second: healing, Unitarians, hippie shit. I don’t like how the word healing feels on my tongue. I associate it with the equation, ‘time on this planet’ over ‘standard of living.’ I would swap a few months of life for a few more beer-stained evenings and call it a day.
This bargaining between health and happiness can be seen in Emma Sulkowicz’s performance piece, The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center. It plays on the intersection of spirituality and health practice with, of all things, an artwork.
In advertisements by the non-profit, Philadelphia Contemporary, the performance is described as a “parafictional medical clinic that provides a revolutionary cure for human desire. In personalized one-on-one sessions, the artist will empower her clients...to satiate their desires.” I can get behind an inquiry into desire, even if Lacanian notions of jouissance and the eternal desire is not acknowledged. I was convinced to try a therapeutic session after hearing the Director of Philadelphia Contemporary, Harry Philbrick, describe his experience. To paraphrase, he noted a similar skepticism toward healing and therapy but said Emma’s piece made sense because art is his therapy. He looks to art to provide a kind of peace. This I can get behind. I can’t quiet my mind in a sanctuary, or fully lower my guard while an MD asks me open ended questions about my biological mother and my adoption, but I can be present and calm in front of a Cezanne, or during a Janine Antoni performance.
While I won’t be sharing all that was said between Emma and I, I will tell you Antoni played an anchor in our exchange. Before entering into my conversation with Sulkowicz I found myself in a makeshift waiting room. The landing pad in the temporary Old City gallery set up a believable fiction, a staging ground to begin the fantasy of being healed. Like the soft chanting soundtrack of a yoga studio I felt the sterile touch of a medical office with details including a cold receptionist and medical magazines designed by the artist. I handed over forms scrawled with typical medical information with an exception, a written acknowledgement that this is a performance. While signing the waiver I was reminded of the Stanford Prison experiment. Will I play the role of patient or worse, victim? Am I susceptible to authority and white coats?
The papers were as believable as my most recent Planned Parenthood intake form with a few exceptions. Peppered in with my past medical history was odd moments like, “has an artwork ever made you cry?” In her survey I was asked to circle on a human diagram where I felt physical and emotional pain. The last question on the form asked what I ultimately desired from the session and what would hinder that. I wrote anxiety, and myself.
Emma intentionally sets up a power play. The doctor will see you now sort of feeling. The appointments were 30 minutes in duration and scheduled back to back. I could overhear a bit of a patient’s exit exchange before the artist popped into the holding area to retrieve my paperwork. She retreated for a few moments behind closed doors to digest what I had provided.
My plans of subverting any personal investigation was foiled immediately. In one unexpected question I was undone. Emma asked, “what is my favorite artwork?” Huh. I scrambled. The first thing on my mind was Janine Antoni’s Paper Dance at the Fabric workshop. Emma smiled and responded, “Oh I know that one.” When pressed why I chose Antoni, I responded with my usual feminist banter, “She uses her body as a canvas. She is vulnerable but also strong. Also her endurance of rolling over and over in yards of butcher paper is amazing.” In a span of a few minutes Emma and I jumped from a kinship over art idols to revealing long ago traumas. Sulkowicz kept looping back to Antoni’s paper performance as our grounding point. “You say you like the vulnerability of it but you are not. You are guarded, walls up.”, she might have said. I don’t have direct quotes because I purposefully kept the recorder off. This is a therapy session after all.
The artist and I wavered between laughing off tragic memories and their deeper consequences. A shared giggle and then, “why haven’t you disclosed this with your parents?” This push pull between professional and casual friend continued throughout the session. It reminds me of the boss who oscillates between peer and power player, one moment you’re connecting over weekend antics and the next they’re your boss again and you need to get back to work.
This lazy susan swivel continued through notions of privilege, gratefulness, and my family history. I told her things I don’t tell acquaintances and I left with that buzzy oversharing worried feeling. Should I have opened up quite like that? Hmm. This inner monologue typically follows a night out at a dive bar with a new friend not a performance artist in a lab coat. The white room and Purell worked on me. In a way it felt like wish fulfillment rather than actual therapy. She asked me questions. I tried to answer them. She reflected my answers and offered up observations. This played on my burning desire in life to truly be evaluated. I want an unbiased outsider to tell me what is wrong with me and therefore reveal how I can be fixed. I know this isn’t how therapy, or even how mental health, is achieved but it’s nice to dream.
The artist held up her mirror to me. It was comforting to talk to a stranger about myself, to watch her take long pauses, laugh, and then offer crafted inquiries and statements. I tried my best to play a willing patient. I suspended my artist/writer brian, lived in the moment, and promptly forgot a lot of what was said. Also, I don’t want to tell you.
I joined in on this spectacle not to be enlightened but because of a deep interest in the artist, Emma Sulkowicz. While casually discussing my plans to attend the performance with my friends I was given a bunch of blank looks. All I had to do to see recognition flash on their faces was mention a few buzz words: rape, mattress, and Columbia University. Ding ding ding. We have a match. I wasn’t going to Philadelphia Contemporary to see Emma Sulkowicz and reach enlightenment. I was going to speak with the Mattress Girl. Emma Sulkowicz became a lightning rod for a national conversation on campus rape. She carried her mattress as a form of protest against the continued non-expulsion of her alleged rapist. The legal need to write the word alleged is a travesty. She became a feminist beacon for women who have been silenced by a ridiculous campus court system. She was called a pretty little liar via a wheat-pasted poster campaign across Columbia’s campus, and treated as an art whore who exploited her trauma for 15 minutes of fame. Even when consulting fellow artists I was met with varied responses. Many had doubts. One friend expressed feeling sorry for the artist. They felt it must be hard to experience a moment so public while also being a maker. Their concern was that the experience frames the rest of her career.
Before my appointment, I distilled my opinions and desires for the Doctor. I interviewed her in my head while biking through Old City. I asked Fake-Emma, a fiction I know nothing yet everything about, different questions. What was it like to watch your trauma play out across the news and the internet? How did it feel to become a symbol for a national discussion (argument) on campus rape and rape culture at large? How did you carry a mattress with the weight of its public opinion and expectation?
To supplement my session, I attended a round table at the Philadelphia Contemporary’s temporary offices at the 3rd street gallery. Three women including Emma led a discussion. Each panelist was of a mixed Asian descent (which they mentioned or I would not) and perched in slightly taller chairs than the audience. The minor elevation implied a hierarchical conversation like the confident lean of a waiter on your booth saying “What do you want?” The speakers included the artist, along with psychiatrist Sandra Leong (or Mom as she was called by Emma), and healer Antoinette Aurell. Over the course of an hour the three meandered through their opinions on healing, why they do it, and what people look for when engaging with them. Their answers were vague. I don’t blame them. When faced with the abyss of why people need therapy I too would find myself using anecdotal language. And frankly, the words pouring from their mouths were far less intriguing than their mannerisms. They emoted a clinical feeling, had the wild hand gestures of a healer, and slight nervous laughter. Foucault was name dropped a few times, as was the benefits of crystal healing. My favorite answer of the night was from Mother Therapist. When asked why she is a psychiatrist her response was something along the lines of: I needed an occupation. I have a certain kind of skillset, and I, like most people, like to help. Daughter’s response, that’s not most people, Mom
The empathetic exchange between mother-daughter/artist-doctor is an example of the multi-layered artistic performance of Emma Sulkowicz. As a person guilty of wanting to be in close proximity to the Mattress Girl I played into the media frenzy around a very unhealthy consumption of trauma. Rather than seek out mental health I wanted to share the same air as a women younger and braver than I. Healing oneself seems banal but put it in the context of what healing might mean to her, as victim, artist, controversial human, and I am receptive. Maybe, by performing as a doctor, Sulkowicz is subverting the dangerous pigeonhole and performs as the artist healing herself.