The spirit of utopia and the art of healing

Submitted by Matthew on 7 August, 2013 - 4:34

“Sanatorium” is one of ten installations that make up the Whitechapel Gallery’s summer exhibition, “The Spirit of Utopia”. The title alludes to Ernst Bloch’s three volumes, written in 1917. The exhibition is described as “a remarkable series of installations and events [which] engage us in playful, provocative and creatively pragmatic models for social change”. Here, Isobel Urquhart reviews “Sanatorium”.


In “Sanatorium”, Mexican artist Pedro Reyes creates a mockup of a clinical setting, with six rooms offering a different “therapy”, which is facilitated by volunteers in white lab coats in the role of “therapists”.

Visitors to the gallery can sample these game-like experiences by booking appointments and signing an indemnity form stating that they know that it’s not a real hospital and that the volunteers are not therapists.

Activities range from reflectively curating a museum of your own lifetime, using a range of small objects, to discussing a burning question you have asked by rolling philosophical dice, to bashing seven bells out of a dummy that stands in for someone who has done you harm or inventing your own relaxation techniques.

Reyes’ “Sanatorium” intends to respond to the fact that our cities contain vast populations of unattended victims of depression, loneliness, neurosis, family violence, suicide, and other pathologies. “Sanatorium” proposes that there are better alternatives — but not political ones — to the pharmaceutical profiteering that lies at the heart of how we currently tend to heal ourselves in modern urban society.

It bills itself as a “test of sociatry”, a term glossed by Reyes as “the science and art of healing society” and its utopian vision is that the kinds of working structures proposed by “Sanatorium” might, if they became part of our ordinary way of life, address the stresses of urban living.  

“Sanatorium” therefore is an imagined world in which therapy, a luxury few can afford, is deprofessionalised and shared out amongst ordinary people. In the better world imagined by Reyes, where his approach becomes something of a social franchise, we might all be opened up to our surplus capacity to help others.

The various activities draw on healing rituals from a wide variety of traditions — sorcery, confession, cathartic therapy, the consolations of philosophy, as well as emancipatory Frierian educational practices, and related theatre techniques in which gallery visitors participate as “spect-actors” as a way of taking responsibility for themselves as members of communities and as beings capable of knowing (of knowing that they know and knowing that they don’t) in order to create a more democratic society. It is thus the participants who actually make the artwork: they provide the material, their own stories, the questions, and the discussions for the events.

Just as in a Brechtian play, even though participants are aware of the set up, that doesn’t prevent it from doing the trick. Participants decide to believe — temporarily — just as when people agree to play a fantasy game or share a joke.

But let’s be realistic. A performative art installation in an art gallery, even one as committed as the Whitechapel to including its local communities, is hardly where the working class is going to go to have its consciousness raised.

For those with a more politicised view, attempts to heal a moribund society may seem tiresomely beside the point and a contemptuous waste of people’s time and energy.

Seen from a critique that places them within a petty-bourgeois ideology, Reyes’ ideas have little relevance for workers or the activists reading this paper. Reyes becomes simply one of “a bunch of dreamers who imagine that an art context gives social significance to weak or wacky ideas”, and whose “irresponsibility would be funny, if the problems addressed weren’t so pressing and so serious.”(Sarah Kent, ICA).

It is then the lack of radicalism in some of the exhibits that leads Jonathan Jones, in an otherwise positive review in the Guardian, to expostulate: “Where are the Marxists when you need them?”

So is there anything the political activist visiting the “Sanatorium” might gain, other than apoplexy or sniggering?

It seems right first of all to note Whitechapel Gallery’s art history purpose in recognising this resurgence in the art world of a commitment to social critique. And that it has history — both in terms of the Gallery’s own past and its place in the history of the East End of London, and also in looking back to that earlier burst of utopianism that inspired Bloch’s life work.

We can also see in these art works expressions of a far wider re-energised but febrile critique of the busted flush that is capitalism, fuelled in part by the shock of the financial crisis in 2008.

As with Occupy, the restlessness for change seems all over the place ideologically and this is reflected in the fragmented glimpses of utopia in the exhibition. For long decades, on the other hand, the left has mourned the apparent death of socialism — as an idea, let alone as a viable political entity. All around us now, there is a renewed creativity and willingness to join in the social and political critique of capitalist society.

We see this not just in the cerebral world of politics or philosophy but also out in the everyday world: in popular struggle and in the surge of imagination and creativity in music, street art, spoken word events and performative artworks that has accompanied — as art always does — the revolutions, protests, riots, and rallies of recent years.

In “The Spirit of Utopia” we see laid out before us the concerns and longings shared by many in today’s modern western capitalist society. These include a better relationship with the earth and its limited resources, a more peaceful world, a world where it’s possible for people to have agency over their lives, and the conflicts between time and money are resolved in favour of workers’ rights to work without precarity and with time to enjoy life.

What “Sanatorium” brings to the dreaminess of utopia is perhaps then the affective — our desire for change and a better world, the euphoric excitement of the dream, and its darker relationship to our sense of loss, shame, disappointment, and other psychological manifestations: anxiety, depression and despair.

It is entirely correct that, a hundred years on from our century of disillusion with the utopian, artists can only reflect back to us broken dreams, fitful glimpses of that spirit of utopia, that we must fit together as best we can.

“The Spirit of Utopia” is open until 5 September at the Whitechapel Gallery.

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