German artist Christian Jankowski seems deeply concerned about fair fatigue—so much so that he has installed a massage table in the booth of josegarcia gallery at Art Basel Miami Beach. Anyone who feels in need of a rubdown can take up a position face-down on the table and let a masseuse go to work. As an added bonus, the willing supplicant will be treated to a view of Jankowski’s new video, Massage Masters, playing on a monitor in line with his or her eyes.
For those a little more modest in public, Soho Beach House staged a private event on Thursday morning that allowed about 30 lucky people to get comfortable and watch Massage Masters in a “Screening Snug” on the second floor of the exclusive club. To get in the mood, audience members were invited to get out of their street clothes and don robes and flip-flops before settling into cushy sofas. Standing by was a battery of five masseuses, at the ready to work their magic while attendees watched the video. Before the event, Jankowski—in a robe for the occasion—was instructing the body workers on how to approach their subjects. “Don’t stand—kneel,” he said. The reason? “Because the film is in Japanese and [you] have to be able to read the subtitles,” he said. He also told them to be gentle, unless someone asks for them to knead more intensely.
Massage Masters is a thoroughly amusing work created for this year’s Yokohama Triennial in Japan. For the project, Jankowski hired six massage therapists from different schools of training to treat various public sculptures as if they were human patients. For example, a specialist in foot massage kneaded his thumbs into the bronzed muscles of a twisted female figure, namely Rodin’s Meditation (1896). Another wielded his elbow into the crevices between the stacked orbs of Henry Moore’s Three Part Object (1960), which looked a little like a deformed snowman. The best of the performances were the ones that were most expressly Japanese. One man who called himself a Ninja warrior therapist threw his whole body into pulling and pushing the various angles of an abstract space-age installation, insisting that he could “adjust” the sculpture the way he would adjust a human body’s alignment. Another presented as a Zen therapist didn’t lay a hand on the realistic bust of a British diplomat, moving his hands meditatively in front of the bronze face in an attempt to “balance spirit and body.”
The film would have worked well without any enhancements, but fortunately I was treated to two brief massages during the course of the 36-minute production. The first was soft and gentle, performed by a female masseuse. The second got right to the knots in my shoulders and neck, no doubt from lugging the Art Basel catalogue. But I also had a lot to think about the role of public sculpture, the division between public and private acts, and the anthropomorphic sense that the public invests in works of art, protecting them and sheltering them from destruction and vandalism.
Afterwards, Jankowski was interviewed by Kate Bryan, head of collections for Soho Beach House, who originally invited the artist to stage a similar event in Berlin during Art Week there. Before beginning, the artist asked for a round of applause for the masseuses who now had to move on to their regular clients, away from this art-spa-cinema experience.
Bryan began admonishing Jankowski. “You’ve broken the golden rule,” she said. “You’re not supposed to touch sculpture.” She continued: “They are not just touching the sculpture—they are giving a lymphatic drain massage and a head massage.” Jankowski explained that he had done two previous works involving athletes and gymnasts interacting with public sculpture. But it was in Japan that he fully realized his curiosity and fascination with Eastern approaches to the body. “If you think about the massage technique of the East, it is giving back to the body,” he said. “And here I am looking at the public body, the human sculpture. Sculptures, as we live with them, become more human, almost like roommates. You miss them when they are gone.”
Jankowski went on to talk about one therapist in particular: the massage kidney specialist. That masseuse had mentioned that massage detoxifies the body, and he had hoped to detoxify the sculpture. “The humor comes when I bring two different worlds together,” Jankowski said. “There is a need to detox art because of the way people talk about value or try to control its meaning.”