Massage Is the Medium

Photo by Erik Knutzen

The Pearl M. Mackey Apartment House on Cochran Avenue between Olympic and San Vicente is one of R.M. Schindler’s later architectural designs, dating to 1939 but retaining the airy, humanist modernism of his best early work. I’m lying face-down on a futon in the light-filled front room of a ground-floor unit, with one leg stretched straight behind me. A diminutive Thai gentleman stands over me — well, actually, on me — his bare foot in the small of my back, as he stretches my other leg up toward the back of my head — just a little too far. I feel the burn and delicious ache of a difficult stretch, and the subtle tingle of unclogged chakras stuttering back into circulation. I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.

Suwan Laimanee is a Thai artist whose home base is Vienna, and he has set up shop in the Schindler apartments through the artist-in-residence program of Austria’s MAK (Museum of Applied Arts), a branch of which maintains and operates out of the Schindler House on Kings Road. (That’s where my massage was supposed to take place, until cool-headed administrators, sensing potential lawsuits — “My energy flow was so balanced I could no longer function sexually!” — forbade it.) Laimanee has been performing traditional nuad pan-bo-rarn (Thai massage) as part of his art practice since 1996, though it was an integral part of the culture in which he grew up. Nuad Thai massage, sometimes called “yoga for lazy people,” is a therapeutic Buddhist tradition dating back more than 1,000 years and incorporating still older healing practices from India and China.

The yoga influence is the most apparent, as many of the positions into which the Thai masseur contorts the client’s body echo the familiar asanas of hatha yoga. But many procedures are also similar to Japanese shiatsu or reflexology techniques, while the underlying philosophy of sen, or vital energy lines, closely resembles the similar Chinese concept of qi. Working symmetrically, from the tips of the toes to the crown of the head, Thai massage seeks to unblock and realign the balance of this energy, through kneading, poking, chopping, deep-pressure application, and stretching, stretching, stretching. A full-body Thai massage can take more than two hours.

After walking out of Thailand at age 20 and wandering for many years through Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Laimanee found himself studying art in Vienna, mentored by Michelangelo Pistoletto (whose Super-8 documentation of himself pushing a giant ball of newspaper through the streets of Rome was my favorite work in Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972 at MOCA last year). Laimanee and Pistoletto had already been discussing ways to bring spirituality into contemporary nonobjective art when Laimanee felt an urge to return to his home city of Chiang Mai for the first time in many years. When he wrote back that he had decided to pursue certification in massage, Pistoletto was enthused, and arranged for an invitation for Laimanee to perform his traditional therapeutic treatments for four months at the Florence Biennale. He has been treading on the art world’s back ever since.


Laimanee’s massage business is only one of the areas of focus in his work. He’s also deeply concerned with the recent genetic alteration of Jasmine rice, mutated so that it can grow outside of Thailand’s unique climate, a development that could well destroy the livelihood of thousands of independent Thai farmers and deal a serious economic blow to the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized. He gently shares information about this and other social, political and spiritual topics during occasional art events at which he prepares and serves Thai food.

But it was another artist of Thai descent who first got famous for cooking in an art gallery in 1992. Rikrit Tiravanija achieved art-world notoriety by cooking and serving Thai food to the public at 303 Gallery in New York. (The show, which also included a literal exposure of the gallery’s backroom dealings, was almost identical in spirit to an earlier pair of works by Chris Burden, incidentally a MAK favorite: For a week in August 1976, Burden anonymously served cappuccino to visitors at the Hansen-Fuller Gallery in San Francisco, and shortly afterward displayed records of all his 1976 business transactions in a piece called Full Financial Disclosure.) Although the predictable “You call that art?” was indeed forthcoming, skepticism was tempered by the connotations of charity and nurturance that attend feeding the multitudes — and how scandalous can a bowl of pad see ew be?

Tiravanija was one of a handful of artists in the early ’90s practicing what French critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud termed “relational aesthetics.” In his essay for “Touch: Relational Art From the 1990s to Now,” an exhibit created for the San Francisco Art Institute last winter, Bourriaud defined this term as “a set of works that take place within interhuman relationships in a deliberate and articulate way — by building alternative social models; producing concrete interactions; collaborating with other people; or even examining social exchanges in a critical way.” That’s a pretty inclusive set, and the idea of contrived social situations as an art form has become a grad-school bandwagon of epic proportions.

Yet in spite of some timely theoretical speculation on the effects of digital-communication networks on human consciousness — and thus on artmaking — the current upsurge in relational art bears a remarkable similarity to the revival of ’60s painting strategies it replaced as flavor of the month. From collective evenings at the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire — another, early example of convivial art meant to redress toxic imbalances in Western culture — through Allen Kaprow’s Happenings and Joseph Beuys’ Social Sculpture to countless Fluxus pranks and undocumented countercultural freak-ins, relational aesthetics seem to have been pretty fully mapped out by the beginning of the ’70s. If I’m skeptical over the marketing of this idea as something new under the sun, and of its potential to significantly alter the way art is understood, I’m nevertheless for any changes it does provoke. Especially if it means I get a massage.


But can the Art Object be dematerialized twice? How is an art massage different from a real massage? Isn’t a great Thai cook already an artist? Isn’t any social creation shaped by relational aesthetics? Questions of this sort might well have occurred to Schindler, who specifically designed his utopian Kings Road home to accommodate creative social experiments. Seminal relational artist John Cage stayed there, and Rikrit Tiravanija recently built a replica of the house in Vienna’s Wiener Secession Kunsthall, where, among other relational activities, Suwan Laimanee performed Thai massage.

I’m not thinking about any of this while getting my massage. I’m completely absorbed in what Laimanee calls “energy sculpture” and “a journey through your own body.” Which points out the difference between massage as art and other forms of social sculpture. Most of the work that has come out of the relational-art camp remains limited by the Western fear of physical contact. Even with the last quarter-century’s explosion of bodywork, our culture remains physically chilly and isolated, most exercise limited to weight training, running, yoga, Pilates — solo routines involving minimal human contact. Social physical contact is narrowed and genitalized, creating at the same time the need for larger amounts of “personal space” (which may then be decorated with attractive paintings and sculptures). Most Westerners devote enormous resources to pursuing relational anaesthetics.

Modernism provides a Western context for massage as art, but in Thailand, where modernism has only had a very slight impact, massage is a constant — “like eating or drinking water,” says Laimanee. Whether the ease with which this ancient practice slots neatly into contemporary art discourse is more than a coincidence, is a question that makes my chakras start to shut down again. And frankly, who cares? If all the mediocre artists were to start giving really good massages instead, the art world would be a far more relaxed and flexible place.

Suwan Laimanee Nuad Thai Massage | MAK Mackey Apartment House, 1137–1141 Cochran Ave., L.A. | (323) 932-9260 by appointment only | Through September 30

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