Ominous black corridors, giant slides, flying machines and moving beds are all part of what has been billed as this summer’s blockbuster London show. Belgian artist Carsten Höller’s ambitious new survey exhibition ‘Decision’ opened today at the Hayward Gallery, London and runs until 6 September.
Höller’s first career as a scientist (he was phytopathologist engaged in the study of diseases in plants) informs his art with its aspects of experimentation and public interaction. Höller has been making and showing art internationally since the 1990s with notable solo shows at Fondazione Prada, Milan (2000), the ICA Boston (2003), Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2010) and New Museum, New York (2011). His work often engages visitors to such an extent that they become part of the exhibition or the ‘experiment’. ‘Soma’, Höller’s installation in Berlin, involved live reindeer, hallucinogenic mushrooms (more on those later) and a mushroom-shaped ‘hotel’ available for overnight stays, all housed in a former railway station. But perhaps he is best known to the public for his stainless steel slide installations ‘Test Site’ at Tate Modern (2006) which proved to be massively popular. Carsten Höller currently lives and works in Stockholm.
I approach the Hayward with trepidation and a clear recollection of my cowardly choice back in 2006 to ride down the smallest of Höller’s slides at the Tate. Luckily I find that the decision about Höller’s new slides at the Hayward wouldn’t have to be made until the end of the show. First to negotiate are the ‘Decision Corridors’ of galvanised steel. The invigilator warns me it will be very dark but assures me my eyes would grow accustomed to it. I enter a long tunnel on an incline which gets darker and darker and twists and turns. I hear other voices above and behind me and wait for a friendly face to join me. I’m not afraid of the dark but this is a deeply uncomfortable experience. When the tunnel verges off, I choose to exit into a room with a giant red and white mushroom mobile attached to the floor rather than the ceiling. ‘Flying Mushrooms’ has seven large Fly Agaric (hallucinogenic) mushrooms made of foam, divided in halves. Up a short flight of stairs is ‘Pill Clock’, red and white capsules in a pile getting larger every three seconds with pills dropping from the ceiling. Nearby is a water fountain, perhaps inviting visitors to ingest one of the pills which they may perceive to contain the same mind-altering substances represented by the mushrooms in the mobile.
A flight of stairs takes me down to a gallery with ‘Two Roaming Beds’, that move through the galleries and can be booked for an overnight stay for £300. Special ‘dream-enhancing’ toothpastes developed by Holler with perfumer Ben Gorham will be offered to guests. While having the free run of a gallery overnight would be exciting, the idea of sleeping in public doesn’t appeal to me at all. Surely spending the night on the beds watched by CCTV and security guards would feel like being part of an experiment? Likewise, I didn’t enjoy wearing the ‘Upside Down Goggles’ on the terrace. As the name suggests, with the goggles on, everything appears upside down. I realise the artist’s objective is to alter the viewer’s perception but I simply feel disorientated and vaguely ill.
Back inside again, I loved two video installations. ‘Twins’ was made over 10 years in Belgium, London, New York, Paris, Santiago, Tokyo and Vienna. It features 7 sets of identical twins facing each other on TV monitors, repeating the same two phrases to each other: ‘I always the same of what you say; I always say the opposite of what you say.’ ‘Fara Fara’ (‘face to face’ in Lingala) is a fantastic work on two facing screens showing a lively Congolese music competition between two performers. In the past, these competitions used to settle land disputes. In competitions today, whoever performs the longest is declared a winner.
I was tempted to try one of the ‘Two Flying Machines’ where the visitor hangs in a harness and flies in circles high above one of the Hayward terraces. It didn’t look dangerous but all the strapping in and queuing involved didn’t seem worth it. However, no doubt it will be a popular part of the show.
I exited the exhibition via one of the dreaded slides. I was told to take the slide on the left as it was ‘slower’ and with the exception of a quick start, it was actually a fairly leisurely 14 second ride.
Overall, despite occasional feelings of claustrophobia and queasiness, I found ‘Decision’ to be playful, fun and well worth a visit.
Words/Photos Joanne Shurvell © Artlyst 2015
Carsten Höller: Decision Hayward Gallery, 10 June- 6 September 2015 www.southbankcentre.co.uk/carstenholler