Wednesday Art Idol

Carsten Höller: flying machines, giant slides and psychoactive reindeer urine
Art | 21 April 2021
Text Finn Blythe
This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

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Carsten Höller makes art that leaves you smiling. It is the sort of art that makes you question, with some guilt, whether art should ever be this fun. Hanging out in bars, sliding down enormous slides, drinking hallucinogenic reindeer urine – it’s little wonder the German artist is such a crowd pleaser, he’s been doing it since the mid-90s when he emerged alongside like-minded contemporaries to push the boundaries of participative art. 

Höller’s emergence on the international art scene came relatively out of the blue, he only began making art in the late 80s and worked as a research entomologist until 1994. Before then, Höller was committed to his studies in agricultural science – a hugely important footnote in the context of his later work – and wrote his thesis on a particular subspecies of aphid. This scientific rationale never left him and runs throughout his work, with his inhabitable installations often compared to large-scale scientific experiments in which we, the viewer, are the object of study.

Upside Down Mushroom Room by Carsten Höller, 2000

Take his famous Slides for example, remembered fondly by all those who slid down them in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall during the artist’s 2006 commission. Aptly titled, Test Site, this characteristically playful installation is representative of Höller’s artistic-MO. It should not be considered an object but a platform, one that is only activated by human experience which it then uses as its primary ‘raw material’. Like so much of Höller’s work, the slides used altered states of perception to question physical relationships with our surroundings, in this case, spiraling around a metal tube (with a perspex roof) from Tate’s fourth-floor galleries to ground level in mere seconds.

Höller’s interest in providing these platforms of visceral interaction have seen him use vehicles, buildings, narcotics and games as well as strobe lighting, live animals and sensory deprivation tanks. Regardless of form, these works emphasise the life-affirming potential of collective experience, of simply letting go. No work embodies this better than Flying Machine, originally made in 1996 but shown recently at the Hayward’s 2015 survey exhibition of the artist. Visitors were strapped into a harness and cast out on a rotating boom over Waterloo Bridge, not the ideal location for your first taste of simulated flight but an experience unlike any other.

Test Site by Carsten Höller, 2006, Tate Modern

SOMA, 2010

For his exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Höller combined his signature humour and lifelong scientific interest with a more radical form of participation. Running the full length of the former train station were two enormous pens holding twelve male reindeer, which were accompanied by eight mice and two flies. Above them 24 canaries chirruped in cages, creating a dream-like audio-visual (and olfactory!) overload that unfolded over the course of several months. This menagerie was split into two groups, a control and a test group.

At the centre of Höller’s investigation was soma, an ancient healing drink with psychoactive properties that was used among the Verdic nomads of northern India. The drink’s recipe was lost thousands of years ago until its rediscovery in the 60s uncovered fly agaric mushrooms as the key ingredient. In Höller’s installation, half the reindeer were fed these mushrooms (which they consume naturally in the wilds of Siberia) and had their (very trippy) urine bottled and refrigerated on site. 

Only half the animals were given food laced with the psychoactive urine and it was up to the audience to decide who. Those willing to stump up €1000 could even sleep overnight in the space on an enormous bed raised on an enormous mushroom-shaped plinth. While the fridges of urine were locked during the day they were opened and free to rifle through at night, only, it was impossible to separate the psychoactive urine from the ordinary stuff. In this game of placebo and altered perception, Höller asks to ponder: can art change the way we think more than drugs?

SOMA by Carsten Höller, 2010, Hamburger Bahnhof

Top image: SOMA by Carsten Höller, 2010, Hamburger Bahnhof

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