“What does it all mean?”
That was the question people kept asking artist Melissa Stern. Her artwork looked as if it had been pulled from some deep recesses of her psyche. Audiences were frequently curious, that is, nosy. The crowds wanted answers.
And answers Stern gave (or attempted to give) in the form of a chorus: a dozen sculptures, a dozen texts and a dozen drawings. Apropos of that duodecuple roster, The Talking Cure debuted in Seattle in spring 2012. Stern has revived the exhibit seven times since, and while the cast of artworks is unchanging, each installation is a little different from the last. The Talking Cure’s current iteration at Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton is a cozy affair, installed in a bright corridor that offers views of the scenic outdoors.
As Stern explains, she lets each curator tailor the install according to the venue. That openness echoes the collaborative nature of the sculptures themselves, which were made with teamwork in mind.
“I wanted to work differently than I had. That’s where I started,” Stern says. Her process became a game of telephone. First came the sculptures, like the soft-serve-shaped headwear worn by the pair of figures in Conversation. Then Stern invited writers (some friends, others friends of friends) to pen stories for the sculptures. Lastly, actors were enlisted to read the writers’ words.
Writers and actors both chose the sculptures they wanted to embody. But the process wasn’t without editing: “There were originally 15 sculptures,” Stern explains. “I didn’t want anyone to be faced with the ‘It’s the last one, you have to take it’ problem. So three pieces didn’t make it into the show.”
What did make it into the show is an exposé of imagined inner lives. One delicious juxtaposition at the Fuller can be glimpsed with the sculpture Friends, displayed near a window with a view of the Upper Porter Pond. This trio of cuddly critters looks cute, but listen to the accompanying monologue and you’ll hear an uneasy tale: “I didn’t expect that you’d bring anyone along…Maybe, before we married, you could’ve told me about this little guy.”
A dark polyamory? A burden that crushes love’s possibility? Whatever your takeaway, the ambiguity amuses and titillates.
Each of the sculpture’s monologues is accessed by scanning a QR code with your phone. As Stern notes: “The audio component, which seemed somewhat radical in 2012, has been widely embraced and loved by the public.” A pandemic-era preference for all things contactless, combined with native QR functionality in the majority of newer smartphones, likely evaporated the codes’ novelty—and any barriers to access they may have introduced. In 2022, The Talking Cure is easy to enjoy in all its neurotic splendor.
I will, however, second the museum’s recommendation of headphones. Phone speakers will work in a pinch when no one else is around. But the monologues and their nuance are grasped fully when heard with good clarity.
The complaints of Stern’s patients are as diverse in content as they are in voice. Some symptoms discussed: the woes of morning wood. The need for shoes at a house party. “Night waves and swimming with invisible hands.” “A theory of multiple deaths.”
Asking viewers to stop and listen brilliantly stalls the average speed of ‘art appreciation’—that is, methodically and quickly moving from piece to piece as casual museum goers often do. Which monologues captivate will vary with your personal taste. When one lands, it’ll keep you for two or three minutes, helping you absorb each piece’s physicality: worked-over surfaces, stretched limbs, plodding feet, or the occasional face that I’ll only describe as deranged.
Or is the derangement my invention? It’s easy to project onto these likable figures, and forget they may have their own interiority. Snake Eyes is eyeless and doughy, a cute, toddler-sized body made from coal-black clay. But his audio track suggests a seedier life, full of bitter wisecracks, dice-waving, and hatred of the rich.
Or take Angry Girl. Somewhat resembling Spongebob’s Squidward in her penetrating stare, her slight goofiness hides a troubled brew. I recommend squatting down and getting eye level with her if you’re able. You become her attentive therapist, listening as she swims from lament to lament: hereditary alcoholism, breast size, or the fleeting peace and love she feels at Red Lobster.
“I hate my quilt, which was supposedly made by Amish women, but actually has a faded-out Sears label on the underside corner. My mother tells me things that just aren’t true,” she relays.
Angry Girl stands sentinel near the entrance, supplying the exhibit’s opening notes. Makes sense, as a disturbed girl was also present at the beginnings of psychoanalysis. Stern’s exhibit borrows its title from Freud, who in turn borrowed it from a patient who was not even his own: Bertha Pappenheim, or “Anna O” as she became immortalized in the psychoanalytic literature.
Her story began bucolically enough. It was the summer of 1880 in the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl, and a 21 year-old Pappenheim was vacationing with her family. Despite the restful surroundings, Pappenheim’s dad fell ill, and soon she did too. Over the next two years, she endured a gamut of dramatic symptoms, any of which would be scary in isolation, much less combined: hallucinations, amnesia, paralysis.
Modern speculation suggests epilepsy might’ve been the true culprit behind Pappenheim’s cocktail of ailments. Today her first-line treatment would be anticonvulsants, not an analyst’s couch. Nevertheless, Pappenheim cooperated with the then-shapeless treatment of talk therapy, enough that she gave it a pet name. Vocalizing demons gives them form, a prerequisite for their vanquishment. “The talking cure,” she called it, or, more casually, “chimney sweeping.”
Stern’s drawings are like everything else swept out of the chimney. She offers: “The rhythm that is created between two- and three-dimensional work helps to create the ‘vibe’ of the show.”
The drawings yield the necessary atmosphere, acting as digressions, conversations off to the side, like dialogue overlapping in an Altman film. Pieces like Regression and Aphasia are tactile, looking tortured as they heap flesh alongside the more airborne element of sound. World building, you might call it. Though of course the world these characters inhabit is precisely our own.
Yes, there’s something about these characters and their collective imagery that resonates with me, and resonates especially with my own memories of the time in which they were made.
In 2012, I was pursuing my own talking cure. I had been seeing a therapist weekly for nearly a year. By spring, I learned I would have to get a new one. My therapist was moving on to finish her graduate studies. Her replacement didn’t soothe me in the same way.
As Freud would come to understand, the constellation between soother and soothed determines the talking’s efficacy. A weak connection does not a potent medicine make. In a similar way, Stern’s sculptures seem to reach out toward us, alternating between brazen and shy, confessional or guarded. Their willingness to spill depends on the viewer.
Which sculpture will reach out to you first? For me it was Gawker, his (her? their?) face sporting a toothy grin—my own silly smile gleaming mischievously back at me, I suppose. I scanned the QR code and was treated to a surreal ramble about bagels and black pearls.
The author of these words? I’m getting there. Back to 2012 first: I had rekindled my love affair with comic books. Specifically, Daredevil. I especially liked the issues by Annie Nocenti. Well, ‘like’ is an insufficient word. Nocenti’s stories became my supplement to the talking cure—philosophical little medicines supplied on the cheap newsprint of early ‘90s comics.
And here in 2022 was Gawker, grinning cheek to cheek before me. I listened to the words, thought ‘How strange,’ and moved on. Later, looking over Stern’s website, I found that Nocenti had written the monologue for Gawker.
Coincidence, the great mover of the world, had gravitated me toward a piece by one of my favorite writers.
What does it all mean?
I could ask that question of Nocenti’s lyrical spiel, or of the synchronicity that compelled me to it. But unlike the inquiring crowds, I’ve imbibed enough art to know that meaning on demand is no better than coercion. I’m content to remain in the dark. Should bogeymen arrive in the shadows, I’m willing to hear them out. As The Talking Cure shows, sometimes our input isn’t needed. All we need to do is listen.
The Talking Cure, an exhibit by Melissa Stern, is on view through Sunday, May 15, 2022. The show is
You can see it at Fuller Craft Museum, 455 Oak Street, Brockton, MA. Free admission for Brockton residents, or $12 suggested donation.