in Features | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85

Before and After Science

Carsten Holler

in Features | 10 SEP 04

After training as a phytopathologist and agronomic entomologist, he specialized in insect communication. Then he became an artist.

Carsten Höller’s works engender doubt: doubt about whether or not a carousel is moving, about whether or not the pigs we can see through a pane of glass can observe us too; doubt about whether the world, and we ourselves, are the right way up; doubt about whether we experience things in the past, present or future, or whether love is produced by the body or transcends it; doubt about the size and shape of parts of one’s body; doubt about whether or not one’s body is there at all, about whether we experience an experience or just its representation; and doubt about whether or not we can find ways of discussing doubt at all.

The objects and situations Höller has created are bewildering in their variety. His work since the early 1990s has encompassed buildings, vehicles, slides, toys, games, narcotics, animals, performances, lectures, 3D films, flashing lights, mirrors, eye-wear and sensory deprivation tanks. This diversity not only defies all formal categories of art-making; it also blurs the lines between what it means to be an artist and what it means to belong to a whole range of other professions, even in an era when the Postmodern slogan ‘anything goes’ has become a cliché. The job descriptions Höller’s work calls to mind include zoologist, botanist, paediatrician, physiologist, psychologist, occupational therapist, pharmacist, optician, architect, vehicle designer, evolutionary theorist and political activist. Most of these belong to the scientific sphere, which reflects Höller’s own educational background, to post-doctoral level, in phytopathology and agronomic entomology. (By the late 1980s, when he first began making art, he was specializing in insect communication.)

For Höller the problem with science is that the profession forces you down the route of ever-increasing specialization. Contemporary art, by comparison, represents a wide-open field. Since his unusual career shift Höller, as much as any of his contemporaries, has been responsible for making that field even wider. Ironically, much of this has been done by transforming devices and techniques originating in different areas of scientific research into various forms of participatory sculpture and installation.

For Höller, though, this isn’t simply a matter of the art world offering a professional realm within which he has permission to pursue a range of interests that science wouldn’t allow. If that were all, his works would simply be acts of re-context-ualization. Beyond the scope of his interests, Höller’s goals are quite different from those of the conventional scientist. While science aims to solve problems, proceeding from a position of uncertainty to one of certainty, Höller moves against that grain, instilling doubt in audiences where previously they had none.

Often what he presents us with seems, at first sight, straightforward. At the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Marseille, where this summer Höller held his largest exhibition to date, works on show included a geometric black and white wall painting, a hotel room, a film of a forest and another of a dancer, a wall of flashing coloured lights, a tank of salty water and a sequence of sliding doors. Each object and environment seemed more or less self-evident on initial approach.

It wasn’t long, though, before each began exerting influences on the spectator that he or she would neither have expected nor have recognized. In Phi Wall (2002–4), for example, when one circular light goes off and another comes on next to it, the illusion is created of a ball bouncing from one location to another. Furthermore, since the colours of the discs vary, this ‘ball’ appears to change colour as it ‘travels’ from one point to another. As there is no way of telling which disc will light up next, it begins to dawn on you that you are perceiving time retrospectively and in reverse.

Conversely, in Décollage (Lift-off, 2004) you think you are seeing the life-size infra-red images of yourself projected on the wall in real time, while in fact the images are slightly delayed. That delay increases the longer you spend in the room. You may subliminally sense something is wrong, but all the while your conscious mind is compensating for the delay.

By putting on goggles in The Forest (2002) you seem to walk slowly through a snowy forest. It feels real, since the image is made up of two films of the same scene shot from slightly different angles, which the brain interprets as one three-dimensional image. At one point the effect becomes
altogether hallucinatory as one film tips upside down and begins moving more quickly than the other. When this happens, the snow appears to descend and ascend simultaneously. Whereas previously it seemed you were moving between static tree trunks, now you seem glued to the spot as they wheel unnervingly before you.

Despite the simplicity of the motif, the diagonal black lines in Zöllner Stripes (2004) seem to move more than the repeated forms in any work of Op art. It takes a while to realize that the lines you had interpreted as tapering in alternate directions are in fact parallel, a misperception that has something to do with the regular broken vertical and horizontal lines that run up and down each one. Soon a conflict arises between what you sense and what you know. A vertiginous feeling of movement occurs as you super-impose one interpretation over the other.

Corridor (2003-4) takes you on an actual journey rather than just a filmic one. After the first few turns, completely dependent on a handrail that runs the entire course of the labyrinth, you may as well be completely blind. Eventually, after what seems a long time in what you assumed would be a small space, you detect light. For a moment it’s as if your eyes are simply adjusting to the dark, but as the light intensifies you realize you’ve reached the end. Getting into Psychotank (1999) feels like getting into a space capsule whose interior is all bath. After climbing a salt-strewn staircase you have to manoeuvre your naked body through a small hatch. Once inside, the saline water makes you float. Not only do you have a sensation of weightlessness; the temperature of the air and water also exactly matches that of your skin, meaning you feel next to nothing. Your body becomes an image.
In the corner of the room there’s a shower. Beside it are fresh towels, a dressing gown and flip-flops. Alone in the space, washing off salt as if you’ve just been in the sea, it’s easy to forget where you are. Clean and relaxed, with hair still damp, you open the door to the next gallery space. This time you find a fully equipped hotel room.

Like the room in Pyschotank, Hotel Room (2004) comes with a lock on the door. The complete privacy allows you to do whatever you want. This could mean considering its significance as an immersive ready-made (according to the information sheet, it’s a replica of a room in the celebrated Hôtel Normandy in Deauville), or it might mean watching TV, taking a nap or having sex. After your involuntary responses to the other installations at MAC, this sudden sense of self-determination is slightly disconcerting. Thoughts turn to how long you would have to spend in there before a guard came knocking. Does freedom have outer limits?

The surfaces of Sliding Doors (2003) are mirrored. As you approach one set of doors, your reflected image is momentarily split in two before another replaces it a little way off – coupled with a much tinier, doubly reflected, image of yourself viewed from behind. This happens four times before you emerge into the exhibition hall again. To begin with, it seems normality is restored. Then something occurs that is even stranger than what went before. You become aware that the area you are now in is identical to the one you left when you entered the corridor. Not only are the dividing walls between the spaces identically laid out, but the spaces themselves also feature exactly the same works, beginning with the 3D photographs of fly agaric, the poisonous, hallucinogenic and mythical mushroom that is a longstanding leitmotiv in Höller’s work.

To the left you see the magic lantern-style projection of Muhammad Ali boxing that greeted you on arrival (Moving Image, 1994–2004). Further up, you once again encounter Psychotank, followed by Hotel Room and, along from that, the darkened room with The Forest goggles. To the right you pass Phi Wall again, the labyrinthine Corridor, the infra-red delay piece and, finally, Zöllner Stripes. You see that the whole exhibition has been made in duplicate, as if it had an imaginary fold down the middle, like a giant Rorschach test. In all, eight works have been installed twice, while four more straddle the two sides of the building. In this way Höller has made the exhibition itself a 13th work (or 20th, depending on the status of the doubles).

What are we to make of the works the second time round? There’s always the possibility that some of us may experience the exact same sensations: speaking of the spiralling slides he has had built in various museums, Höller remarks, ‘The surprise of the slide is that it is a repeatable surprise’. Alternatively, while the overall act of duplication is something we experience, the individual works it consists of may read solely as representations when encountered a second time. A third answer could be that our increased comprehension allows us access to levels of experience that our initial bewilderment obstructed. Many more possibilities exist, of course: Höller’s experiments aren’t designed to yield tidy results, and neither are human minds.

As if this literal, materialized déjà vu was not enough, Höller also offered visitors the chance to experience the whole exhibition the wrong way up, with his Upside-Down Glasses (1994–2004). Alternatively, by wearing the more cumbersome Expedition Equipment for the Exploration of the Self (1995), visitors could walk around the museum, or indeed the outside world, seeing only a reflection of themselves, a form of peripatetic solipsism that brings to mind the tourist / narrator in Raymond Roussel’s novel Impressions d’Afrique (Impressions of Africa, 1910), who ‘experiences’ the continent in a carriage with blinds down. Both viewing devices could be borrowed from the museum for personal use for up to eight days.

The Upside-Down Glasses refer to an experiment conducted by George Stratton at the beginning of the 20th century. After wearing the ‘glasses’ for a while his vision was a collage of objects, some the right way up and others inverted. Finally, after eight days, he saw everything ‘correctly’. His brain had begun doing what it usually did to images appearing on his retina, except twice over this time. We choose to believe otherwise, but the world we see really is upside down.