Experience the Wait: Carsten Holler

Bradford Nordeen


The New Museum is a strange and varied entity. It lurks atop many year-end best-of lists (current raves include Lynda Benglis’s first major retrospective and the fabulous Ostalgia), but is also host to some of the most critically maligned exhibitions around. These bombastic, boy shows receive mostly disastrous reviews but spin a buzz around the institution as an espace terrible. Such shows mine artworld heavyweights that only collectors love to love (Maurizio Cattelan, Takashi Murakami, Chris Ofili) and give the general public an opportunity to stretch out and enjoy contemporary art with wow factors that throw caution to the wind of an otherwise composed New York art world. I was given one particularly enlightening view of such a show, Skin Fruit, when poet and San Francisco art maven Dodie Bellamy was visiting the city with her partner, poet, novelist and Amazon.com top 100 reviewer, Kevin Killian. Dodie and I walked through the museum’s galleries with her characteristic dispirited wonder. Turning the corner she would arch an eyebrow and, instead of emitting the disgust that was nearly universal, would chortle, “well, this is a hoot.” While exceptionally smart and profoundly well-read, in these New environs this duo approached the contemporary art space with a grain of salt, as the fun house it so often is. Here, they were smart to remind, the uncanny still has value and theater can certainly still affect. I mean, this is the institution that branded its new building with a lighted rainbow sign reading “Hell, Yes!

So, just in time for the holidays, the New Museum has rolled out the red carpet for Belgian scientist-cum-artist, Carsten Höller, with his first New York retrospective, entitled Experience. The show employs many of this spectacle-wrangler’s signature endeavors––a whirling metal lighted carousel, a sensory deprivation tank (Giant Psycho Tank), Upside-down goggles, giant mushrooms, and yes, the much-hyped metal slide which slices through three of the building’s floors, spitting museum-goers through the architecture at breakneck speed. Visitors sign waivers to cut any personal injury claims off at the pass. And woe to those who do not participate in these playland bells and whistles––because that’s precisely what this show is all about. Experience is a perfect platform for the New Museum’s showmanship impulse, an exhibition where compositional aesthetics are almost completely slighted for their calculated effect.

My first experience with Carsten Höller came in a very different media format––his early, surly video work. In an undergraduate classroom, I was treated to the 1992 video Jenny held her little daughter twenty minutes under water, not to cause her any trouble, just to see the funny bubbles, an informational video on how to bring harm to small children and other vicious tricks. Most noteworthy was a brief segment in which the artist collected jellyfish washed up from an afternoon tide, depositing them into dug out “traps” for couples taking romantic strolls down the twilight sea front. Suffice to say, I loved it.

Little of this overt brand of cynicism is displayed at the New Museum. In the near-20 years since Jenny, Höller has established himself as an environmental artist, which is to say, a weaver of elaborate, psychotropic environments that aim to induce hallucinatory experiences in the viewer. Giant expensive installations and scientific inventions whirl and churn in an effort to rewrite the gallery as a cross between science fair and amusement park.

It is the latter, of course, that brings in the masses ($), and ads for Experience emphasize the slide. On an earlier, thwarted attempt at visiting the exhibition on a busy weekend afternoon, I met with a line that snaked far outside of the museum. A guard addressed the gathering, informing us that they were experiencing a ninety-minute wait for the slide and that it was unlikely that we would get to engage in the remains of that day. So I returned on a rainy Wednesday for an unencumbered experience.

Rushing up to the top floor of the show, three sparse works greet the viewer. Singing Canaries Mobile, 2009 has the most in common with Höller’s earlier, more nihilistic work, positioning metallic cages in a teetering formation, each storing a tweeting little bird. A wall mounted lever (safely locked by the institution, one must assume) would allow that these creatures be hurled to the floor at any moment. Mirror Carousel, 2005 works minimally, offering an austere alternative on the family fave. Visitors are shown to industrial grade benches, one at a time, and slowly circle a mirrored center, which counters their counter-clockwise progression.

Beyond commercial rationale, there is a reason that the slide is the focus in all marketing aspects of Experience. Untitled (Slide), 2011 offers the most effective summation of Höller’s hallucinatory mission. Zipping down the surprisingly abrasive, hard metal object at quite an unsettling speed, my body began to jitter in the curving inertia. An endorphic rush of fear and excite flooded my body, in a none-too-comforting manner. And as I was spit out at floor one of Experience, the alarming force with which I landed on the receiving mat made me understand those front desk waivers.

Then the slide’s more subtle charms made themselves apparent. So affected is your body from this frantic assault, that your senses are completely primed to experience the effects of the newly commissioned installation Double Light Corridor, 2011, which takes up one half of the gallery’s wall space. These diagonally positioned cold-cathode lights flick on and off interchangeably, one wall––then the other. It’s a rather simple effect, but the collusion between the adrenal-inducing slide and the pulsating light show elicited a gratifyingly woozy effect. Amidst the pulsations, a mélange of pathetic, neon-colored animal sculptures lay slouched on the floor. There’s nothing all that special about these polyurethane dolphins, crocs, and orangutans, but their comforting presence offered a pleasant placation to the assault of the slide.

This aspect, the threatening sensation felt in the face of a funhouse object, is the strongest card in Höller’s deck, which can include more mundane referents to drug culture and technobabble. That edgier aspect to his art practice is sadly slim in the remaining exhibition. Certain segments of the 5-part Experience Corridor, 2005 allow visitors to shift perceptions of their own bodies. Seated at the table of Rabbit on the Skin, 1996/2011, I jolted at the pulsations that tickled my arm and laughed at my uptight, high minded approach to the work.

Ripping visitors out of their objective space is a great feat for an exhibition if it is consistently sustained. And it’s sadly in this capacity that Experience fails. All is well and good in many of the shows sensorial evocations, but the objects, when they are presented as aesthetic entities in-and-of-themselves hold little wonder or intrigue. Throughout the show, mock-ups for utopian slide buildings (in graphite on paper or 3D transparent acrylic forms) fall flat, showcasing a banal aesthetic that traces little coherence between the other objects on display. These proposals for impossible architecture are completely incongruous with the ground floor installation of bifurcated mushrooms. These enormous sculptures have always struck me as one-note, and, as addenda to the exhibition they leave a departing taste in the mouth that is surely far more unsettling than those natural caps on which they were based.