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Weird Science

By Sarah E. Fensom

The “Carsten Höller: Experience” comes to the Bowery.

Carsten Holler, Giant Psycho Tank, 1999

Carsten Holler, Giant Psycho Tank, 1999

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The New Museum’s career survey of Belgian-born artist Carsten Höller needs you.

As you shoot down a duplex-spanning metal and plastic tube-like slide, as you float in the waters of a sensory deprivation tank, as you sniff a new-age love potion, as you dangle your legs under the swings of a mirrored carousel, things are happening that manipulate your body and state of mind. You, the viewer, are expected to do as much as you view. After all, you’re a member of Höller’s focus group. You signed a waiver and you’d better make it count.

A former scientist, Höller, 49, began producing art 18 years ago and prefers to call his contraptions “confusion machines” rather than works of art or science experiments. Take, for example, a piece dubbed The Pinocchio Effect, which encourages the viewer to place a vibrating rod on his upper arm while touching his nose. The viewer should feel as though his nose is growing. Another possibility, if the viewer pleases, is to give the front desk his credit card as collateral and experience the exhibition wearing a pair of hi-tech goggles that perch on the top of the head and fold down over the eyes. The goggles turn everything upside down and send many of their wearers hobbling around saying “whoahhh.” These pieces are part experiment, part art— and most certainly part confusing.

The aforementioned slide, a signature of Höller’s, was also an installation featured at his 2006–07 show at the Tate Modern in London (the design was a bit more complicated and suited, of course, to the architecture of the museum). Höller considers his slide practically, as a transportation alternative—in this case from floor four to floor two of the New Museum. The slide is slick and employs a few quick turns that can easily take the slider by surprise. In fact, if the slider does not respect the rules—keeping his or her feet tucked in the mandatory cloth sack and arms folded tightly across the body or held in the lap—a few bruises might be in his or her near future. In this way, the slide accomplishes two of Höller’s goals—to manipulate the participant’s perception of space and of time. These goals he shares with a group of artists from the early 1990s associated with the term “relational aesthetics,” who include Maurizio Cattelan, Dominique González-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

The slide also manipulates the relationship between the participant and the other viewers of the exhibition. The top of the large tube is clear plastic, which renders the facial expressions of the slider visible to onlookers on the third and second floors. Screams and squeals are audible, as well. The slider’s reaction to the experience is instantaneous and difficult to conceal. As the slider comes bumping down the tube toward the terminal chute, he or she is greeted by other museum-goers, having just had a uniquely private and public moment.

The slide, as one might guess, is the star of the show. The tank, filled with highly salinized water and heated to the temperature of the human body, is equally as novel, if not more so, but requires more boldness—disrobing, subsequent wet hair—than can be expected from a majority of museum-goers. The giant Mirrored Carousel (2005) is a meandering and reflective break from the intensity of the slide and the flickering light installations on the lower floors. The zoo of Day-Glo silly-putty-esque animals is charming, and the steel mobile composed of hanging birdcages fitted with live, chirping canaries is majestic, industrial and sweet all at the same time.

Perhaps the greatest feat of the exhibition is the museum’s instillation and staging— it’s really a carnival dropped into the large white cube. Issues of safety and privacy are of paramount importance, and not only is it impressive how each contraption communicates with the others, but also how the lines of museum-goers are managed (expect to see the guards wear their walkie-talkie batteries out). Notions of fun and play have such a large role here that it is sometimes easy to forget that the viewer is digesting art—conceptual and otherwise. Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s associate director and director of exhibitions, sums it up in his introduction to the exhibition’s corresponding catalogue, where he tentatively relates Höller and Marcel Duchamp: “While Duchamp’s and Höller’s respective bodies of work don’t share much, their approaches to art-making do: they behave more like scientists than artists, and both perhaps would agree that art has more to do with illuminating gases and anesthetics than it does with beauty or taste. And both these mad scientists would probably agree that in art there are no problems and no solutions.”

Author: Sarah E. Fensom | Publish Date: December 2011

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