When you enter the 3rd Street Gallery (an art gallery that is actually on Second Street), you will meet a receptionist asking you to fill out a questionnaire on your personal habits and medical history. Then, after a short wait, you will be ushered to a room in the back where Emma Sulkowicz, dressed in a white lab coat, will be waiting.
The artist will see you now.
“The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Clinic” is a performance piece designed for an audience of one. Each “patient” gets a half-hour session, arranged by appointment, with Sulkowicz playing the part of a doctor whose goal is to cure you of desire.
Spoiler alert: The session will not cure you of desire — or anything else.
“I say that to begin an investigation as to why we go to art,” said Sulkowicz. “I’m interested in what kind of desire we are seeking to fulfill when we go to a museum, a gallery, even a theater show. What are we doing?”
Philadelphia Contemporary, a new art-presenting organization, asked Sulkowicz — who is based in New York City — to premiere the performance in Philadelphia. She will perform the unscripted piece 130 times in three weeks. Each performance — unfolding like a therapy session — is based on the individual’s questionnaire.
“A lot gets uncovered, reworked, and figured out by the end,” she said. “Some people come in say, ‘I was just curious, I don’t have problems.’ By the end we’re, like, ‘Oh, man.'”
Sulkowicz achieved recognition in 2015 for “Carry That Weight” (the Mattress Performance), wherein she carried a mattress everywhere she went during her last year at Columbia University. It was meant to bring attention to the university’s refusal to expel her accused rapist — a fellow student. The university could not find sufficient proof to show guilt.
The controversial performance became the centerpiece of a national conversation about sexual assault on college campuses, then, in a backlash, the right of the accused to innocence until proved guilty.
During that yearlong performance, Sulkowicz was often approached by total strangers wanting to share their intimate problems with her; some spontaneously reached out to touch her.
“It felt like I was a healing object,” said Sulkowicz. “At first, I was upset, but then I had to understand that people have a need. These reactions are indicative of that.”
The “wellness clinic” is her response to that perceived need. Unlike a real doctor, Sulkowicz allows herself to react emotionally to her audience, often slipping out of character by the end.
“I’m very conscious of how things people say emotionally affect me,” she said. “I felt tears multiple times already.”