Everything will be okay: Sanatorium, by Pedro Reyes, at maat
maat (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology), in Belém, is one of the national museums that has most invested in international artists outside the circuits usually seen in Portugal, in an equally fruitful and consistent engagement with current environmental or sociological issues. The work of Mexican Pedro Reyes is no exception; he considers himself a sculptor, but his work encompasses installation as well as social, activist (he won the Luxembourg Peace Prize in 2021) and psychological issues, with a hint of the theatrical about it. Sanatorium, which ends on October 11, is a landmark work in his career, celebrating its decade with this presentation at maat, after having passed through Documenta 13 in Kassel, the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and OCA in São Paulo, among others over the years.
It is a work for the general public, which would make relatively little sense without their presence and participation. In a context severely affected by the pandemic, at a time of personal withdrawal and confinement, the work acquires another dimension, since, according to the artist himself, it is a “clinic”, and should not be regarded “as an art exhibition”. It may be excellent timing in terrible circumstances, but, after ten years, what effect does the work have on us? Has anything changed?
The Annex of maat is organised into different environments, each providing a kind of therapy conducted by the artist – not exactly scientific, although it is based on some trends in contemporary psychoanalysis (and philosophy). The experiences are like placebos, with doses of religiosity and even shamanism (which makes more sense, given the artist’s Central American, though certainly Westernised, roots). Staff in lab coats prep us and then escort us through the space as we choose up to three of the therapies we can trigger with our presence. We pay tribute to the people we care about most; we write secrets anonymously to then share them anonymously too; we experience the catharsis of confronting the simulation of a person (or situation/object) chosen by us – and then perhaps forgive and purge. We use our bodies to better understand our pain (the interesting “Mudras”). These are processes of self-questioning, but the aim always seems to be to arrive at our own validation, not to understand the rottenness of the world – which would be in line with a lot of current contemporary art. After that, the assistants ask us questions about the experiment: if it was beneficial, if it had the expected result. If the ‘guinea pig’ had a less predictable reaction, I don’t know whether the staff would be able to address it, but it’s an interesting question nonetheless. Do we, as a modern society, already have the tools to analyse and absolve ourselves of any guilt? Is the work also intended for those from the far-right and dictators? The answer is yes, of course! And these should probably be the first to do it. But are we all so equally victimised?
Aristotle said, “art is the catharsis of the soul” (thanks for this reminder to the excellent exhibition advisor Adriane Kampff). Sanatorium is an interesting playground for grown-ups. It is not an art exhibition per se and possibly lacks the transcendence of the best art. We are fortunate to have it among us at a unique moment in many people’s lives – at least those living in a “first-world” country. It may be that transcendence happens within us, far from the spotlight and the hustle and bustle of the art world. We hope so.
Sanatorium is on view at maat, in Lisbon, until October 11.