“I can create miracles,” Alex Melamid declares, trying hard to suppress his perpetually ironic smile. “I can heal people. That is the power of art.” Sitting in the early fall light in his downtown Manhattan studio, Melamid is expounding on his latest passion. As one-half of the iconoclastic duo Komar and Melamid, this preternaturally amused (and amusing) Russian has been ruffling feathers in the art world for three decades; but with their latest project, the two artists seem to have found their true calling. Not the production of images, but the production of health and well-being through art.
Komar and Melamid’s realization of art‘s amazing curative power was precipitated, Melamid tells me, by their interaction with audiences worldwide. “After our lectures people would come up to us, and we saw that we could give them solace and console them.” Gradually, he says, “I understood my power as an artist, and I came to see that God gave me this power.”
One must not squander God’s gifts, and so in September the duo placed an “Advertisement” in The New York Times announcing their new therapeutic paradigm. “For thousands of years, Art has served as a solace, salve and salvation,” their copy begins. “For the downtrodden, the poor, the spiritually bankrupt and intellectually corrupt, Art has eased pain and brought meaning to otherwise chaotic lives.” Yet while the beneficial effects of art have long been known in a vague, generalized sense, the details have only recently been unlocked, by their own tireless research. “Which Art is best for rheumatism?” they wondered. “Which painting can ease arthritis? What schools work best for heart murmurs? Shingles? Trick knees?” Komar and Melamid now have the answers, which, according to their ad, they are making available through a series of “Healing Power of Art” booklets and audiotapes. Customized for the great museums of the world, each “Healing Power of Art” booklet features a detailed floor plan of the museum indicating the best paintings, periods and artists for a wide spectrum of disorders — from heart palpitations and tetanus, to back pain and nosebleeds. The accompanying cassette tapes guide you gently through the museum.
If that is the DIY end of the operation, ground central for their therapeutic practice is a spanking-new, state-of-the-art clinic, the Light-Shadow Therapy Institute, where patients can come to be treated in person for physical and psychological afflictions. Here, the “Healing Power of Art” is incorporated into a multifaceted regimen entailing a slate of therapies, all utilizing the restorative properties of light and shadow.
“As the new millennium begins,” the institute‘s brochure sagely notes, “many people are searching for a therapy which will combine the powerful healing arts of the past with the knowledge of today’s alternative practices.” Following in the tradition of Anton Mesmer and Madame Blavatsky, Light-Shadow Therapy (LST) “merges the great scientific ideas of vibrational and magnetic energy with the spiritualmythological discoveries of ancient times to bring forth an exciting and profound holistic systematology.”
Located in a wing of their below–Canal Street, NYC, studio, the institute hums with newly installed equipment: ultraviolet lights, lasers, slide projectors and TV screens. In hourlong sessions, patients undergo a series of procedures in which various forms of shadows and different types of light are projected onto their body.
I enter the patient booth and sit in the comfy oak chair. Melamid closes the door behind me, and I‘m in the dark. He begins to punch switches on a custom-built console in the main office, and above me ultraviolet lights flicker on, bathing me in their phosphorescent glow. Next, colored lights are switched on and various shifting shapes are projected onto my head. Now comes the laser, which is suddenly dancing Lissajou figures, or wave forms, across my stomach. I sit there absorbing the electromagnetic vibrations, allowing myself to be “lumen massaged,” to use LST’s cryptically scientific parlance. Finally the piece de resistance, “Vacuum-Tube Image Therapy.” The television screen in front of me bursts into life with an image of van Gogh‘s Sunflowers, beginning a televised montage of iconic paintings that suffuses my being with restorative power for the next 10 minutes. Later, I will lie on a doctor’s couch, where similar images (in the form of slides) are projected onto my body.
Supposedly based on ancient practices from the Siberian city of Barguzin, the purpose of Light-Shadow Therapy, Melamid explains, is to balance the body‘s three major rhythms: the cosmic, the social and the personal. “You can never be fully healthy,” he cautions, “but if these rhythms are reasonably balanced, then life can be bearable.” Making life more bearable is the key function Komar and Melamid see art as serving. To that extent, the therapy is just one part of a grander vision. While the therapy came first, Melamid tells me that he and Komar gradually realized that art’s restorative power was simply a manifestation of something larger: Art is actually a religion, and as with all religions, healing is a major component.
Art has traditionally had its roots in religion, but now, Melamid says, “It has become a religion itself, a full-blown religion.” As evidence he cites the fact that for the last five years attendance at art museums has been skyrocketing. “People didn‘t understand this. But I think it’s clear — they are looking for salvation, redemption. It‘s not for the art itself that people go to museums, it’s for spiritual experience. There‘s always been this metaphor of the museum as church, but now it’s not just a metaphor.”
The sacredness of art in contemporary society is a theme Komar and Melamid have touched on before, in their “People‘s Choice” project, where citizens of various countries were polled about their likes and dislikes in art. From the statistics generated by these polls, the two artists created a “Most Wanted” and a “Least Wanted” painting for each nation. Much to their surprise, the project generated an intense amount of hostility, with many people viewing this painting-by-numbers as a kind of defilement of the sacred act of artistic creation. “I haven’t met anyone who doesn‘t believe in art,” Melamid says. “These days, it is the most universal religion. More people believe in art now than in any particular religion.” According to Melamid, the basis of this religion is that artists are creators: “We’re the only people in the world who create — just us and God.”
As Komar and Melamid see it, the religion of art has its own Holy Trinity — Leonardo, Rembrandt and van Gogh. It is the last, however, whom they credit with really kicking off the new church, and it is he whom they see as the archetypal artist. When speaking of van Gogh, Melamid falls into hushed, reverential tones: “In a way he died for our sins. He‘s a Christ-like figure. You always need some person to get the religion going, and he made this church happen.” I mention Galileo, the supposedly persecuted scientist who got the modern science of physics off the ground. Melamid concurs enthusiastically: “Yes, you always need a suffering figure to make it happen. Art, science, religion — the legends are based on the same presumptions,” at least in the Western world.
Melamid points out that Jesus not only suffered for our sins, “He proved his power through healing, through raising from the dead, et cetera.” It is just this power Melamid sees as the true future of art. “Art is about communication,” he says, “communication between the artist and the people. But maybe you don’t need anything in between — the object of a painting for instance. Maybe you can just go directly to the people.” In other words, artists could give up painting and sculpture per se, give up the production of new objects, and use their power to heal people directly. It‘s not like there’s any lack of good art in the world, Melamid notes. “I don‘t think we need any more objects,” he opines.
What about him and Komar? “Myself, I am trying not to produce any more objects,” says Melamid. “Why? What for?” In a capitalist society art has become just another process of production, he says, another way of churning out consumer goods: “I don’t think this is what art is about — if it is about anything.” If it is about anything, for Komar and Melamid it is about psychological, physiological and spiritual renewal. To that end, they see their future not in front of an easel but in front of an audience, “preaching.” They already have several events lined up where they will begin “spreading the word” about the “Healing Power of Art.” In this time of crisis and confusion, says Brother Melamid, “we bring hope to the people.” What more could any artist offer?