As luck would have it, I woke up last Thursday feeling pretty crummy. Maybe it was allergies, maybe it was a cold. (I've never totally understood how people seem to know, instinctively, which of those maladies is afflicting them.) Either way, I felt sub-par. And, as if that wasn't dire enough, the Rapture was looming on the horizon last Thursday, if you'll recall, ready to herald the apocalypse, or whatever. Basically, there was never a better time to go to the Art Healing Ministry's inaugural clinic. "Expect miracles!" read the flier. "Guaranteed results in 24 hours! Don't give up! Art can save you! When your case seems hopeless, there is a remedy for you somewhere in the history of art!"
So off I trekked, armed with tissues and a minor case of incredulity, to 98 Thompson Street, where Russian artist Alexander Melamid — one half of the former conceptual artistic duo Komar & Melamid, with Vitaly Komar — has set up a storefront "art clinic." The premise of this pleasurably confounding space, whose official launch will take place tonight from 5 p.m. - 7:30 p.m., is: If we know that art is good for us, how can we learn to use it for our own good? How can we, as press materials put it, channel its power to "alleviate major human physiological and psychological afflictions"? The artist, clearly, has moved on from his last body of work, the "New Icons" series of classically painted portraits of hip-hop artists, oligarchs, and religious leaders.
The Ministry, I've already gleaned from its satirical come-with-us-and-drink-the-Kool-Aid-styled Web site, offers a menu of services including "Art Evaluations," "Immersions in Art," "Art Cleansings," "Art Rejuvinations," and "Art Maintenances" at the clinic, as well as everything from art bar mitzvahs to art weddings or safe-sex orgies off site. When I arrive, however, I learn that it's not Kool Aid that's on tap, but rather art-infused water (or, if you prefer, vodka). Melamid emerges from the candle-lit "Meditation Room" in the back, where he's been peacefully gazing at the artwork of the day, and warmly greets me, before taking me on the grand tour.
Clutching my elbow while leading me on a slow circumnavigation of the room, he shows me the "Art Store," where one can purchase the beverage "chargers," featuring art such as Boticelli's "Birth of Venus": cylindrical glass bottles that transform normal liquids into curative tonics via the transitive properties of the artworks they contain. "Of course, Picasso," Melamid explains, showing me another charger. "Picasso is very medicinal." The artist then tries to tempt me with van Gogh insoles — which he concludes I probably don't need, because of my apparent youthful vigor — as well as Anselm Kiefer salami and Lucian Freud sausages, at which I make a thoroughly grossed-out face.
Picking up on my queasiness at seeing reproductions of fleshy Freud limbs on the packaging of the medicinal ground meat, Melamid mischievously leads me to a stool on which Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" is emblazoned. "It's for your prostate health," Melamid tells me, eyes twinkling more and more with each revelation. "It's healing power goes up your...." I nod, trying to give off a vibe of being coolly serious, which earns me an introduction to some outdated technology: a rectal infuser of art, displayed on a pedestal in a Plexiglas case, which Melamid (cracking a slight smile at this one) assures me is no longer used, and is solely on display as "an antique."
The modern-day art-cure procedures are much less, ahem, invasive, and take place in the "Treatment Zone" — a kind of dentist's chair, where patients can recline, fill out evaluations, and have great artworks (works that Melamid refers to as "heavy duty") projected onto them to test for therapeutic compatibility. The artist may then prescribe an immersion routine, which could involve going to an art institution in the city to view a specific work; or maybe he will recommend a rejuvenating treatment such as the "Brancusi Slimming Visualization" for the overly Rubenesque.
"Medicine," Melamid tells me, "is still called the 'medical arts,' which means it's lunacy." He grasps my hand. "Never trust your doctor, lawyer, or financial adviser. If your doctor says it's art, run." While saying this he stands in front of a gloopy self-portrait in pastel tones — like any great leader, he confesses, he likes to keep his portrait handy to remind people who's in charge. He sizes me up for my treatment.
"What are you, 23?" he asks with eerie accuracy. "Come back to see me in...," he pauses in thought, "40 years." "But what about my hay fever?" I ask, sniffling imploringly. "Ah, go see some Monet," he suggests and then, eyes flicking toward a pimple on my chin, kindly hands me a laminated card that reads, "George Seurat: Patron of Clear, Youthful, Radiant Skin." On the back of this card is a brief biography of the artist, as well as this prayer:
O dear Melamid,
Who elevated George Seurat
To the dignity of Arthood,
We implore you
By his intercession
To give us health of mind,
Body and soul.
Free us from all those things
Like blemishes, acne, blackheads,
That make our lives so miserable.
Make our skin clear, youthful, and radiant
Like the glorious art of George Seurat
for now and ever as long as we tread
the surface of the this side of the world.
I feel like my pores are already getting smaller, as Melamid retreats to the back, leaving me with Gary Krimershmoys, the fervent curator of the project. He eagerly relates his plans to expand the Ministry into a worldwide franchise, beginning with one show in London to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair, followed by another in Moscow. "I think this is the most interesting art concept of the moment," he says breathlessly. "Hopefully it can change how people look at art!"
According to Krimershmoys, the first clinic was developed in SoHo — and not Chelsea, where you might expect to find such a perplexing conceptual, interactive installation — because he and Melamid did not want it to seem "exclusive, only for the 'in.'" "You'd be surprised how many people seem to get it, though," he says. Apparently, all the "yoga instructors and shamans" of the neighborhood have been digging it, and one wandering Parisian tourist even set up a second round of treatments.
At this point, Melamid ambles back out to where Krimershmoys and I are standing, to bid me farewell, and as I pack up I ask Melamid whether he's heard of a recent, absurd-sounding scientific study that posits that the brain's chemical reaction to art is the same as its response to falling in love. He looks at me like he's reconsidering my presumed mental health. "Love is much more like a disease, not a cure," he says, furrowing his brow. "Are you in love?" he asks, concerned. Then he brightens: "Come back! I can cure it with art!"