Marni Kotak sits on a gold-painted twin bed, wearing a gold satin nightgown, with matching bedsheets covering her legs. She’s scribbling in gold ink on a cartoonishly large notepad, an expanding list of the day’s emotional fluctuations. It’s a small room, littered with gold-painted everything: chairs, desk, exercise machine, dumbbells.
It isn’t Kotak’s apartment, but the microscopic Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, where I have come to see Mad Meds, during which the 39-year-old performance artist will document her “personal struggles with her own mind, the US medical system, and the pharmaceutical industry as she attempts to withdraw from psychiatric medicines.”
Kotak has only just begun weaning herself off a cocktail of anti-psychotic, anti-depressant, and anti-anxiety medication. She started the pill-popping regimen—a combination of Wellbutrin, Abilify, Klonopin—in February 2012 after being treated for postpartum depression. A medicine cabinet stuffed with empty pill bottles provides an informal tally of the drugs she’s consumed in the past two years. When I arrive, Kotak is surprisingly relaxed, telling me that, at the moment, she's only suffering from “mild anxiety and achiness.”
It was almost inevitable that Kotak’s struggles with mental illness would become fodder for her art: the birth of her child--a now-2-year-old boy named Ajax--that provoked the postpartum depression was itself a performance piece.
In 2011 Kotak garnered global media attention—and vigorous criticism—when she gave birth to her son at the Microscope Gallery, a live “performance” she called The Birth of Baby X. One blogger called it a “self-aggrandizing political stunt.” Another dismissed it as narcissism masquerading as art.
The subsequent depression landed her in a hospital psych ward, an experience which she discusses like an ex-con recounting a stint in prison. Kotak paints an almost One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest picture of a mental institution, with patients in “white rooms, alone, drugged out, with no place to exercise.”
“I had to be cut off from my family, which made everything worse,” she tells me. Indeed, her performance is as much a political statement about America’s mental health care as it is a personal one. “I feel like people should be integrated into the community and we should have social rituals to support people who are going through that experience of madness.”
And it's not just the institutions that Kotak sees as the enemy, but those who staff them: the rude and inconsiderate nurses, the doctors too reliant on pharmaceutical solutions to treat complex problems. A stained hospital gown framed at the foot of the bed, she explains, is a reminder of when nurses restricted access to her breast pump. “They were understaffed and they had to keep the pump locked up because it could have been a danger to me,” she says with a nervous laugh. “They just didn’t have time to help me.”
Kotak isn’t subtle in her criticism of America’s mental health professionals, telling me that “psychiatry may have manufactured the growing epidemic of mental illness in the country.” She claims that Abilify “can cause long-term brain damage” and notes that it's the “No. 1 selling pharmaceutical drug across all categories in the U.S.”
So how does Kotak’s readiness to mentally unravel in an art gallery serve others? “With my performances I think of myself as a vessel for other people to imagine themselves doing something like this. I don’t think our society has offered people many models of how to safely get off medication.”
She might be offering new models for withdrawing from psychotropic drugs, but it’s mostly the sense of drama that we’re drawn to (as was the world media when she gave birth in front of an audience); the personal collapse as reality TV show performance. But she insists her work isn’t sensationalist or attention-seeking. “I am not interested in just creating a spectacle of myself,” she says. “That’s really not what this is about. It’s very personal and it’s about me, but when I choose to do these performances I think of them as larger than myself.”
There is something old-fashioned about Kotak’s prescription for mental illness and desire to circumvent Big Pharma. “We are built to be able to surmount life’s difficulties. A hundred years ago people survived without these medications.” It’s a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, do it yourself message--and one that might be better suited for those suffering from postpartum depression than bipolar disorder.
In the four days since the opening of Mad Meds, she says, some people have come expecting to see pain pornography, a madwoman in the throes of withdrawal. “I’m going slowly. So I don’t expect to become totally unhinged, but I don’t know what’s going to happen.”