For the next three years, Russian-born, New York-based artist Alexander Melamid will be the chief resident of an art therapy center in a west Chelsea gallery. Anyone can stop by the Art Healing Ministry, on West 29th street, for a session with the artist himself (book an appointment by calling 518-567-8922, his cell number). He might administer a treatment for ear pain, which involves projecting a Van Gogh self portrait onto the face of the patient. Or he might recommend an at-home treatment, like therapeutic insoles covered in canonical works of Expressionism. Hopefully, your condition isn’t so severe that you land a session with the “Art Infuser,” made from an enema bulb and a VHS player.
“As much as holy water helps religious people,” Melamid explains over the phone, “art helps people.” The original Art Healing Ministry--which premiered in a SoHo gallery last year--was an obvious satire of the so-called “art industrial complex,” where museum shops seem more important than the museums themselves. Though the newly reopened Ministry is similar to the original, the piece seems a shade more sincere than its predecessor. Perhaps because, in an unlikely meeting of high art and psychiatry, the artist has spent the past year administering his "therapies" to mentally ill patients in Queens. Melamid explains that volunteering was an antidote for his own disgust with the excesses of contemporary art, transforming his perspective on his own work.
Only a few years ago, Melamid had quit the art scene for good. The one-time conceptual art bad boy was 50 when he says he had an epiphany that his career had been a waste of time. He describes asking a younger colleague what she wanted as an artist, and being stunned at her response ("fame and money"). “There’s this Chekov story in which a priest has a revelation that there’s no god. He’s in shock, he doesn’t understand what’s happened," Melamid remembers. "That’s what happened to me.”
Convinced that art was no better than the Catholicism of the Inquisition (“though it’s killed fewer people”), Melamid split with his longtime partner Vitaly Komar and quit showing. When he finally did finally start working again, three years later, it was on the original Art Healing Ministry, a vicious, straightforward parody of the art world.
But an odd thing happened at the gallery one day. A hospital administrator (and gallery goer) came by to take a look at the Ministry, and approached Melamid with the idea of bringing his show to actual sick people at a psychiatric ward in Queens. Melamid accepted, and what started out as an experiment has become a regular gig. Melamid travels up to Queens on a weekly basis to help patients with severe mental illness, using his work, originally intended as an ironic criticism of an insular industry populated by the super-rich, as an art therapy tool.
“Of course,” he tells me, “art is nonsense. it’s an artificial construction, like religion. But medicine and psychiatry are the same thing. Doctors are as greedy as artists, and they know as little as artists. We’re both trying blindly to find solution to problems.” Sometimes, Melamid will even accompany the hospital’s interns on rounds.
Last month, Melamid reopened the Art Healing Ministry at the new, permanent space in Chelsea. Visitors can still get treatments similar to those in the 2011 version of the piece. But somehow, knowing that the Ministry is a "satellite office" of the Queens hospital changes it. Melamid has found an unstable peace between satire and sincerity.
Despite all of modern art’s flaws, he believes that art is a necessary part of life. “I’m trying to force people to believe in art, to find new gods,” he explains. “What I’m saying to my patients is close your minds, open your eyes.” He adds with a laugh, “Of course, I’m a con artist.”