The Phenomenological “Experience” of Carsten Höller by Jennifer Lindblad

Jennifer Lindblad experiences Carsten Höller and discusses the ways in which his work explores contemporary theories of body.

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Carsten Höller

Carsten Höller, Mirror Carousel, 2005. Image courtesy of the New Museum. Highlighted emphasis courtesy of the author.

In 1961 Maurice Merleau-Ponty published “Eye and Mind”, his seminal essay on the role of perception in our understanding of the world. Much of the text is concerned with corporality, in asserting that the body is not only a thing in the world, but the vessel for—and condition of—experience. Carsten Höller’s exhibition Experience, which just ended at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, played on some of these concepts.

Höller himself comes from a background of science. Born in Brussels in 1961, the same year Merleau-Ponty’s “Eye and Mind” was published, Höller earned a doctorate in biology in 1988 with a specialization in Insect Communication. He subsequently embarked on a career as an artist, with his previous work in entomology informing his artistic practice. Experimenting with social and institutional norms, as well as delving into conceptions of the self, Höller employs playful, interactive installations to discuss themes of childhood, safety, love, the future, and doubt. In an October 2011 interview with The Art Newspaper, he noted, “The real material I work with is people’s experience […] I think of life as an experiment on oneself. Subjective personal experience in science is a no-no. In starting to make art, I wanted to bring in what had been forbidden.”1 Without recorded data or objective results, visitors are able to experiment with themselves freely, considering complex ideas and opening them up to the realm of possibility and personal discovery.

In Experience Höller once again assumes the role of scientist, with museum visitors as the lab rats, but with an element of free will—or perhaps merely the illusion of it. It is a survey of the past eighteen years of Höller’s work, and when seen together, a carnival aesthetic emerges, transforming the New Museum into a site of play. Visitors come to gawk at the spectacle as well as to become it. Unlike a typical retrospective where works are grouped chronologically, the show is organized experientially. Much like the ascent of a roller coaster, the visitor’s path through the exhibition is engineered to create and amplify a sense of anticipation. After purchasing tickets and signing a liability waiver, visitors have the opportunity to rent “Upside-down Goggles” (2009/2011) and don them in a glassed-in exhibition room housing the sculptural group “Giant Triple Mushrooms” (2010). The goggles are disorienting and can induce a variety of effects including nausea and dizziness, but the stupefying effect is well worth the risk. From there one of two mirrored elevators (designed by the artist) transports viewers to the top level where the main attraction of the exhibition awaits.

“Untitled (Slide)” is a 102-foot long slide that slices through three floors of the New Museum. Höller refers to it as a “pneumatic mailing system,” and it offers an alternative mode of transportation through the exhibition.2 The thirty-second thrill ride has seen previous iterations at ten international venues, most notably the Tate Modern in 2006. For their safety and comfort, visitors are provided with canvas sliding sacks, elbow pads, and helmets—if they so choose. The queue extends along the back walls of the room, and those waiting are treated to “Singing Canaries Mobile” (2009), although the birds’ song is usually drowned out by the crowds. Visual distraction from the wait is offered in “Mirror Carousel” (2005), a life-sized carousel that operates at a maddening slowness. The New Museum receives a high volume of visitors, and the queues these crowds create are integral to the success of Höller’s works. During the wait visitors can experience a full range of emotion: the initial exhilaration, the anxiety that builds while hearing stories and reading warning labels, watching others disappear down into the slide and listening to their shrieks, and, eventually, the freedom of one’s own personal plummet.

In fact Höller has utilized this empty space as a venue for another, more subtle artwork that may be invisible to most visitors. “What Is Love, Art, Money?” (2011) takes the form of a wall-mounted telephone. Hanging directly adjacent to the phones utilized by museum guards, it is concealed as part of the existing architecture or normative exhibition environment. Lacking a didactic wall label, and occluded by people in the line of people in front of it, the work is not immediately apparent. Reports of how it works differ: according to one exhibition review, the phone rings occasionally and if visitors answer they will hear a voice talking about the topics the work’s title alludes to.3 Another review states that visitors may “pick up one of the three phones on the wall and make a long-distance call, which will be reused as an answering-machine message as part of the work.”4 Either way it promotes visitor interaction and exploration; this kind of playful questioning is all part of Höller’s objective to turn visitors into both scientists and the subjects of study.

On other floors, works can be divided into two categories: those that offer an altered or utopian experience of architectural space, and those that provide immersive, hallucinatory experiences. “Swinging Curve” (2009) is a hallway fabricated from polystyrene panels that are suspended from the ceiling. Its weight is slight, and it takes up almost the entire room so that the only way through the room involves squeezing by and inevitably bumping against the walls. From inside the structure, these bumps register as the shifting of the entire structure, as if the rug is being pulled out from under one’s feet. This work has a similar, but subtler, disorienting effect as “Upside-down Goggles,” playing with the visitor’s body in space and the accuracy of visual perception. “Giant Psycho Tank” (1999) provides the visitor with a private bath in a saline pool billed as a “sensory deprivation tank.”5 The floating space is opaque, but the adjacent showering and changing areas are partially exposed, allowing other visitors to catch a glimpse. As the participant floats, water fills the ears and he/she is unable to hear the world outside; the tank becomes a world unto itself. Höller originally intended for up to six visitors to float in the pool at one time, but after the press preview of the exhibition, the New York Department of Public Health ruled that only one visitor at a time may engage in the work. This ruling significantly impacted the experience by reducing an aspect of relational aesthetics, where floaters were able to interact with fellow floaters and increase the focus on their own body.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, visitors are invited to engage in a series of psychological and physical experiments. “The Pinocchio Effect” (1999) tricks the mind into believing the nose is growing through the use of a vibrating device. “Rabbit on the Skin” (1996/2011) tickles the visitor’s forearm through the push of a button. In “Pill Clock” (2009), pills drop occasionally from the ceiling, and with the assistance of an adjacent water cooler, visitors may take one and see if the pill takes effect or is merely a placebo. “Love Drug (PEA)” (1993/2011) consists of a vial of colorless liquid. Visitors may remove the vial’s lid and sniff for the promise of a special smell. The chemical the work’s title alludes to, phenylethylamine, is found in chocolate, and is popularly believed to alter one’s mood. Unfortunately, the effects are undetectable: the vial has little to no scent. “The Forest” (2002) consists of wearable goggles that are supposed to create a three-dimensional image of a forest. Because of its location at the end of the hallway, a line of spectators forms, transferring the focal point of the piece from the device to the unsuspecting wearer. This group of works addresses expectations, both mental and physical. Again and again, visitors compare their experience to that of fellow visitors in an effort to outline common and disparate experiences. “What am I supposed to do, see, smell, or feel?” the visitor wonders. “Am I doing it right? Did it work for you?”

Of course one can simply observe the works without participating. However, a temporal experience may be opened up for the viewer through the viewer’s bodily participation, and this is a deeply enriching aspect of experiencing Höller’s work. “Vision is attached to movement,” Merleau-Ponty often-quoted phrase goes.6 Referring to the body as flesh, Merleau-Ponty underlines its physical importance in the act of perception. The body implicit, it becomes a constant background for experience, intertwining body and space as partners. The viewer’s sense of their own presence and perceptual capabilities is heightened: “My body simultaneously sees and is seen,” he writes.7 A temporal experience for the viewer is opened up, and a profound depth of picture plane may be perceived.

Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh as integral to the perceptual experience of an artwork is reflected throughout the exhibition. This is a topic writer and philosopher Alva Noë also addresses in his 2004 essay “Action in Perception.” He argues that perception is an activity that requires action in both the body and the mind, a sort of mutual thought.8 Perception is not something that happens to us, or in us, he argues—it is something we do. The viewer’s body must be present in the artwork and also active in creating meaning. A perfect illustration can be found in Höller’s “Mirror Carousel.” One enters the artwork first through observing its form and motion, but one may also physically enter the work by stepping onto the carousel and taking a seat in one of the swings. In addition to being an object of perception, Mirror Carousel makes riders acutely aware of their perceptual capabilities, enacting Merleau-Ponty’s statement, “My body simultaneously sees and is seen.”9 Philosopher Taylor Carman, the author of Routledge’s primer on Merleau-Ponty, expands on this particular phrase. What Merleau-Ponty is implying, he suggests, is that in addition to seeing itself seeing, the body “touches itself touching, it is visible and sensitive for itself.”10 This is certainly true of the rider, who—in opposition to the usual museum/gallery regime—is allowed, even beseeched, to touch the object, to become part of it. Noë writes that perception is gained gradually by active inquiry and exploration; the carousel encourages this.

Noë claims that the most effective artworks are those that induce an experience rather than attempt to describe one, citing Richard Serra’s large scale sculptures as the prime example. He writes that because of specific factors,11 viewers are overtaken by a complex, original experience. By replicating an object with which visitors are already likely familiar, but placing it in a museum setting, Höller re-contextualizes it. “Mirror Carousel” thereby seduces visitors into an imaginative experience: we are opened up to the possibility of being elsewhere—in a carnival or amusement park, for example. The experience echoes a claim by Merleau-Ponty: “We must take literally what vision teaches us. Namely, that through it we touch the sun and the stars, that we are everywhere at once, […] even our power to imagine ourselves elsewhere.”12 The immersion is full, but also hyperreal due to its location and reduced speed; the experience becomes uncanny.

Carsten Höller 2

Visitors in the queue to ride Untitled (Slide). What is Love, Art, Money is located on the wall behind the visitor in the teal shirt. Image courtesy of the New Museum.

The more artworks we participate in, the longer we wait on the queues, the more we perceive and interact with other visitors, the more our perceptive and temporal experience is extended. In this way, the format of the exhibition as a whole is conducive to understanding perception as Noë does, namely that “perception is not a passive, interior experience but rather a mode of active engagement with the world.” He continues: “To reflect on the character of experience, one must direct one’s attention to the temporally extended, fully embodied, environmentally situated activity of exploration of the environment. Experiential art enables us to do this.”13 In this regard, Höller’s Experience is a prime setting for a phenomenological experience.

The real question is whether visitors are engaging in this kind of reflection. The majority of the press coverage of Experience was overwhelmingly positive; bloggers detailed their adventures with glee. Reviews by art critics, however, sang a different note. Critic Paddy Johnson wrote, “Experience is more about emptying your mind than it is about contemplating a specific philosophical question, so the kinds of conversations the show tends to inspire will more often revolve around the work than delve into its meaning.” The works, she writes, “are less about actual experience than what is imagined—in this case, apparently, a generic acid trip.”14 Maika Pollack echoed this sentiment, writing, “there is value to reflection, to consideration rather than participation, and this is what is lost here.”15 In his essay “The Fall of Relational Aesthetics,” Andrew Russeth criticizes the movement in general, writing that its time has passed. Höller, he writes, “indulged interactivity to an almost comical degree.”16

If we take the critics’ evaluations as the guiding factor of whether or not Experience is a successful exhibition in a phenomenologically reflective sense, we can be sure it is not. Maika Pollack synthesizes the sentiment when she writes, “If the traditional work of art addresses the viewer as a thinking, aesthetically critical being, much of relational aesthetics, including this show, addresses the spectator in a more familiar mode: that of the consumer. […] Experienceturns the museum into a fun-house, at a cost. What we lose is the critical faculty, which, in a way, brings us full circle: “Mr. Höller’s is an exceptionally fun exhibition to visit, and a particularly difficult one to review.” I would argue for a second look. After the effects of the exhibition—nausea, headaches, bruises, salty ears, shaky legs, exhilaration, or otherwise—have worn off, a focused reflection on the works is possible. The subjective, individual experience is, in the end, up to the viewer—the rat in the laboratory, the scientist in the lab coat, or the visitor in the carnival.

1. Sarah Douglas, “Twisted Ways of Seeing.” The Art Newspaper. Oct. 24, 2011.

2. “New Museum to Present First New York Survey of Works by Carsten Höller.” New Museum of Contemporary Art. Press Release. Oct. 7, 2011.

3. Maika Pollack, “Are You Experienced?” Nov. 1, 2011.

4. “Carsten Höller: ‘Experience’” This Week In New York. Nov. 26, 2011.

5. “New Museum to Present First New York Survey of Works by Carsten Höller.” New Museum of Contemporary Art. Press Release. Oct. 7, 2011.

6. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind. 1961.

7. Ibid.

8. Alva Noë, “Experience and experiment in art,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2000.

9. Merleau-Ponty, idem.

10. Taylor Carman, Merleau-Ponty, 2008.

11. These factors include size (overwhelming), site specificity (providing an entirely new environment for the viewer), the lack of perspicuity (the works’ curves, tilt, and gravity need to be explored), and because they are unique (non-geometric, non replicable). See Noë, idem.

12. Merleau-Ponty, idem.

13. Noë, idem.

14. Paddy Johnson, “Naked and Nauseated at the New Museum.” The L Magazine. Nov. 9, 2011.

15. Maika Pollack, “Are You Experienced?” Nov. 1, 2011.

16. Andrew Russeth, “The Fall of Relational Aesthetics.” New York Observer. Sept. 15, 2011.

Jennifer Lindblad is a Stockholm-born, New York-based arts writer and curator. A graduate of Smith College and the Stockholm University International Curating Program, she has been a long-time staff writer and editor at Art Observed.

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