Published  24/06/2015

Carsten Höller: Decision

Carsten Höller: Decision

In his latest major exhibition, Carsten Höller’s playful artwork turns the Hayward Gallery into a theme park, with the use of installations, kinetic sculptures, videos and light

Hayward Gallery, London
10 June – 6 September 2015


Since the early 1990s, Höller (b1961) has made a name for himself as one of the most playful and enigmatic artists on the international contemporary art scene. A multi-disciplinarian, his exhibitions usually turn gallery spaces into scientific laboratories. Except, instead of the protective goggles you find in a lab, you’re provided with goggles that flip your vision upside-down (Upside Down Goggles, 1994-2009). This is but one example of the kind of experimentation on the human mind that typically takes place in one of his shows. He has constantly sought to experiment with our usual notions of perception. Over the past 20 years or so, he has exhibited all over the world, with solo shows ranging from his first solo exhibition in Cologne (curated by Nicolaus Schafhausen) in 1993, to Leben at Thyssen Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna last year. What has been constant in his work thus far has been his desire to make us, the viewer, reassess what is “normal”.

When people think of Höller, they often refer to Test Site, his slide installation at Tate Modern in 2006. Test Site was part of the Unilever Series at Tate, in which a selected artist is showcased each year in the Turbine Hall, and was Höller’s last exhibition in Britain. It was a bold and playful statement that served to explore a situation in which humans experience both joy and fear simultaneously. This summer at the Hayward Gallery, however, Decision brings together some of his earliest work, such as The Pinocchio Effect (1994), with work made for the current show, such as Isomeric Slides (2015). To put it simply, if Test Site represents a playground ride, Decision is the theme park. It is unlikely that you will have been to a show of this magnitude that requires such a degree of physical participation. But then again, participation is a choice and, as the show’s title suggests, you don’t have to immerse yourself in anything if you don’t want to.

From the start, however, you are required to make decisions: there are two entrance doors leading in to the exhibition, “A” and “B”, which will determine your route into the first room, depending on which you choose. This decision might be the first you have to make, but it is the least consequential as, no matter which door you pick, you are shrouded in darkness. Once through the doors, you enter Decision Corridors (2015), a maze of what look like large ventilation shafts, which contain very little light. Relying on just sound and touch, the experience can be claustrophobic, but, because you’re aware that this is an exhibition, you cannot help but feel more excited than worried. There’s a duality to the exhibition that is present not only in the two choices for each section, but also the two different (often opposing) feelings you experience within the choice you make. This beginning sets the tone of the show instantly and in the most dramatic way.

The first room features Flying Mushrooms (2015) – a kinetic sculpture that requires you to push certain parts of the structure in order to set it in motion. His use of the Amanita muscaria mushroom (also known as the fly agaric) is down to Höller’s fascination (he was an agricultural scientist in his earlier years) with its biological/evolutionary purpose – or lack thereof. In the next room is Pill Clock (2011/2015), which has pills dropping on to the floor every three seconds. Like the fly agaric mushroom, the pills are red and white, suggesting potential parallels between the two. There is a water fountain next to the pile that facilitates the consumption of a pill if you so wish. The list of materials used for Pill Clock includes “placebo”. Höller himself claims in the exhibition catalogue that he is unsure of what the mysterious pills contain. Moving on through this floor level of the exhibition, you come to Roaming Beds (2015). These robotic beds move slowly around the room, avoiding obstacles, thanks to built-in sensors. What we see here is Höller introducing a moment of uncertainty – just because you fall asleep in one place, does not necessarily mean you’ll wake up in that same place. For £300 a night, visitors can test this out for themselves.

Perhaps one of the most interesting decisions the visitor has to make is while watching Fara Fara (2014), a two-screen video installation that is based on the music scene in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With the positioning of the screens on opposite sides of the rooms, the viewer has to choose which of them to watch. Although both screens depict the same scenes throughout, they vary in exactly what they’re capturing, thus creating a sense of constant unrest and uncertainty when going from screen to screen.

In the upstairs galleries, Half Mirror Room (2008) sees Höller play around with our perception of reality by using the mirror image to distort our normal view. Due to the placing of large mirrors all around the room, there is a sense of doubling taking place as the mirrors reflect off each other creating an almost endless space. Elsewhere on this floor is Twins (Belgium, London, New York, Paris, Santiago de Chile, Tokyo, Vienna) (2005-15), a video installation with identical twins from around the world talking to each other on opposing screens, uttering the words, “I always say the same as what you say,” followed swiftly by: “I always say the opposite of what you say.” Outside, on the roof terraces, is Two Flying Machines (2015), in which the visitor is suspended in the air horizontally while moving slowly, as well as Upside Down Goggles (as previously mentioned). Last, but not least, is the specially commissioned Isomeric Slides (2015). Although the visitor has the option of leaving via the gift shop downstairs, to do so would almost undo the entire experience. It is as if all the decisions made beforehand were leading up to this one. Going down this slide from the roof of the Hayward provides the visitor with a feeling of closure both emotionally and literally. The same feelings of excitement and fear experienced at the beginning are felt again at the end, but in a brighter, more positive, context. In some small way, it is futile to try to review this show because everybody’s experience is so totally different. It also raises the question: Is this enjoyable participatory art or just mass entertainment? You will just have to – as Höller wants you to – decide for yourself. 

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