The centerpiece of Carsten Höller’s survey exhibition is Untitled (Slide), 2011, an enclosed, tubular slide, made of stainless steel with a transparent upper shelf, which cuts through the middle of the museum from the fourth to second floors. After you sign a waiver and wait in line, you scramble atop a canvas mat, shove off, plunge through the floor and hurtle through the building, coming to an abrupt stop on a second-floor mat. It would be easy to perceive this work as a collision of museum and playground, with a dash of amusement park thrown in. Curving through exhibition spaces, it is a spectacular structure, with an industrial but also vaguely intestinal look. While it offers thrills, invigoration and palpable danger, it also invests the familiar experience of visiting a museum with childlike wonderment and excitation. But what’s most compelling is how this sculpture, which so constrains, manipulates and speeds up your body, also does such peculiar things to your mind. As you plummet for just a few seconds, you lose control. Things happen so fast that you can’t really be rational. Instead you are walloped by exhilaration and fear, confusion and acceptance, and the experience is oddly cathartic. This artwork directly and physically induces heightened consciousness, and when you stand up at the bottom you feel stunned and also, somehow, changed.
Höller, a German who grew up in Brussels and lives in Sweden, is a big deal internationally, but he hasn’t exhibited all that much in the U.S., which makes this exhibition, spanning works from 1993 to 2011, very welcome. Many of the pieces mix a clinical coldness (Höller’s background is in science) with a pronounced element of spectacle, and many also engage not merely viewers en masse but the individual viewer, as both an observer and participant. Höller’s rollicking spectacles set up private, disorienting and transformative experiences for solitary people (hence the exhibition’s title, “Experiences”). You feel really alone whizzing down the slide, even though people can observe you as you speed past. You can strap on (and be isolated behind) bulky goggles that turn everything upside down and make navigating through the museum at once marvelous and precarious. With Aquarium (1996), you lie down on a bench, fit your head through a sealed-off opening in a sizable tank filled with water and bliss out looking up at slim fish as they glide about: you are in the museum but feel yourself to be in an underwater elsewhere.
Höller’s Giant Psycho Tank (1999) probably induces more anxiety for most visitors than the comparatively risky slide, because total nudity is strongly recommended. A big, enclosed, semitranslucent tank contains salty water a few inches deep. You climb up some stairs, disrobe and shower, while keenly aware that you (or parts of you, as in your lower legs) can be observed from the outside as you stand behind a door which has an open space at its bottom. Naked, you lie down in the water and float, letting your mind wander as you are gently swirled about. While the experience is peaceful, you can’t quite shake the unnerving feeling that you are doing something intimate in public, or even that you are the subject of some quasi-scientific experiment.
For all their razzle-dazzle effect, Höller’s works-including an illuminated, mirror-bedecked carousel, with swinging metal chairs, that rotates ever so slowly; a vertiginous curved corridor made of subtly swaying polystyrene panels suspended on metal wires; and an aggressively flashing bank of white fluorescent lights on two walls-reveal a sophisticated sculptural acumen and an engaging way with materials like plastic, glass, stainless steel, water and lights. Transparency and opacity, conduits and barriers, abound in this funhouse/science lab of an exhibition, which has so much to do with shifting perception, scrambling orientation and a constant exchange between restriction and freedom. After you’ve slid, floated, performed several odd tests in an “Experience Corridor,” ingested a white capsule from a bin piled high with them and wended your way among five giant mushrooms (they are like physical manifestations of hallucinatory experiences), you feel you’ve been on some sensation-provoking, consciousness-rattling adventure, masterminded by an artist who is part science, part circus and altogether unique.
Photos (left) Aquarium, 1996, PVC glass, filter system, water, fish and mixed mediums. (right) Untitled (Slide), 2011, stainless steel, canvas mats and mixed mediums. Both at the New Museum.