Carsten Höller: Experience

New Museum, New York
26 October 2011 - 22 January 2012

Vivid stripes disrupt my gaze, and as I attempt to renegotiate myself in relation to my luminous environment, unfamiliar hands place a cumbersome device around my head. I open my eyes and my vision has been utterly flipped. I begin to move upwards, although, nonsensically, I feel instead that I am being lurched downwards. Close by, naked silhouettes enter an enclosed tank one by one. I walk on and stumble by a line of people who are seemingly oblivious to the trailing echoes of screaming coming from within the silver vortex, swallowing bodies through a chasm in the building’s floor. At my feet are neon animals, and in the air are caged birds. I venture past a black curtain and am faced with an infrared image of myself. I leave; a mechanical device offers me a small white pill. Someone faces me and asks me if I want to try the Pinocchio effect with them. I sit down on a mirrored carousel, and quite abruptly everything stops.

Situated at the New Museum, New York, ‘Experience’ is the first comprehensive large-scale retrospective of Carsten Höller’s practice, within an American Institution. The much-anticipated exhibition by the influential artist, boasted record attendance figures over the New York winter holidays. The title Experience is borrowed from post-1990 art theory, in which Höller and his peers have been contextualised; this is primarily, Nicholas Bourriaud’s ‘Relational Aesthetics’1 and B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore’s ‘Experience Economy’2. Coming to art after a career in science, Höller has conceived of his practice as a laboratory for the investigation of an array of subjects, including entertainment, transportation, participation, sexuality, and psychedelic intoxication. Höller’s ‘artist-as-scientist’ agenda highlights the interdependent processes shared by both disciplines. An example of this is the production of calculated risk within his constructed environments: over the last eighteen years the artist has employed psychotropic drugs, flashing lights and architectural alterations to construct experiences of mental and physical consideration of the ‘self’ within social-sculptural environments.

With risk comes uncertainty, and in Höller’s practice doubt regularly arises as a term used to stimulate disequilibrium in his audience. Indeed, through the destabilising effect of his work, his environments subvert the audience’s gaze and produce an inability to focus. Upside-Down Goggles (1994-2011), when worn, act as a physically de-stabilising device, confusing the viewer’s gaze. The iconic Holler Stripes (2001) are mathematically designed to induce a feeling of optic vertigo that results in a response of physical uncertainty. Other works in the Experience Corridor continue this trend, but in a more social mode. Doubt is perhaps most present within Höller’s most popular work; the slide Untitled (2011) acts as a vehicle, swallowing participants through the New Museum’s architecture.

Navigation through the exhibition is more complicated than is necessary, due to the New Museum’s curatorial decisions. The retrospective is a confusing labyrinth offering little in the way of effectively executed thematic curatorial zones. In its press statement the Museum states that ‘Each floor of the exhibition explores a different general theme within Höller’s work to provide a carefully choreographed journey through the building and the artist’s oeuvre’.3 This aim was not quite realised due to a lack of didactic prompts, nor was this curatorial methodology carried through, or referenced within the exhibition publication (which instead took the form of an encyclopedic dictionary). The curatorial decisions, although referencing the broader destabilising effect of Höller’s work, were problematic because of Höller’s very resistance to institutional functionality and classification. The extension of the exhibition to the lift, down stairwells and as a vehicle of oscillation through the architecture of the museum itself, makes it seem as if Höller’s work does not lend itself to any thematic or spatial classification, but, rather, could be defined as an all-encompassing laboratory comprised of constructed micro-social situations. Considering the literal title of the exhibition and the artist’s identified tendency to operate with a laboratory approach to practice, I feel New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni would have done better to more fluidly embrace the ideal of an all encompassing experience-package in his curatorial decisions.

Holler’s expanded art-science execution of constructed sculptural vehicles and social situations, becomes an impetus for quasi-utopian instances of mental and physical departure. However, to completely experience these works one must place trust in the artist, and this is difficult to do in Experience. I cannot possibly trust letting go of myself in order to experience these situations, without first considering the context within which the exhibition is constructed. Although compelling, the focus on uncertainty is confused by curatorial decisions that add to the feeling of insincerity I have when engaging with Experience.

Carsten Höller, Giant Psycho Tank, 1999. Inside view. Polypropylene, rubber, steel, PVC tubes, charcoal and sand-filled filter, pump, continuous-flow water heater, switch unit, water, magnesium sulfate, cotton bathing gowns, cotton towels, and flip-flops, 236 1/4 x 157 1/2 x 145 5/8in (600 x 400 x 370cm). Courtesy the artist. 

Carsten Höller, Aquarium, 1996. PVC glass, polyethylene, filter system, heating rods, pump, cables, water, stones, sand, and fish (Leuciscus idus), Diameter 63in (160cm), height 65 3/8in (166cm), benches 63 x 19 5/8 x 19 5/8in (160 x 50 x 50cm) each. Courtesy Galleria Massimo De Carlo, Milan. 

Carsten Höller, Giant Triple Mushrooms, 2010. Polyester paint, synthetic resin, acrylic paint, wire, putty, polyurethane, rigid foam, and stainless steel, dimensions variable. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. 

Carsten Höller, Orangutan, 2011. Polyvinyl, polyurethane foam, polyester, glass eyes, cow horn, 40 x 55 x 120cm. 

notes: 

1. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les presses du réel, 2002.

2. B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore, The Experience Economy, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1999.

3. ‘New Museum to Present First New York Survey of Works by Carsten Höller’, New Museum of Contemporary Art, Press Release, 7 October 2011. See http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/view/carsten-hoeller-experience