BY Hans-Christian Dany in Reviews | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

Carsten Höller

BY Hans-Christian Dany in Reviews | 06 SEP 96

Who isn't looking for happiness? Although the sun is shining outside, a banner printed with the word Glück (Happiness) lures people into Carsten Höller's exhibition, lit only by a few spotlights and a projector. The space is dominated by a wooden frame which, like everything in this exhibition, is on a scale that is slightly too large. It leads up to a flying machine behind which a Super 8 film is projected onto the wall. The film shows the most common promise of happiness in a heterosexual life ­ a family. A beaming father, in this case the artist's gallery-owner, is throwing his child up in the air, ready to catch it again. The endless video loop is so remorselessly sentimental that Höller clearly means the cliché to be taken seriously. The artist is projecting happiness on to his interface with money. Höller scarcely needed to study biology, an achievement that he so likes to parade, to make the unsurprising observation that parents enjoy playing with their children. This, in combination with the thesis on the need to search for a strong and healthy partner for sexual reproduction that this occasional artist constantly puts forward in his writings, makes the work seem more like something from a Leni Riefenstahl film than a scientific discourse.

It suddenly becomes apparent that, apart from me, there are only small, young families at the exhibition. Children in carefully looked-after Sunday clothes play on a slide installed by Höller and land in hay, which is constantly swept back into place by an attendant. One of the fathers present is filming his family's happiness in the half-dark with his Handycam. Perhaps the artist felt that as nowadays junkies take over even the playgrounds in pursuit of their ideas of happiness, a protected place should be set up in the Kunstverein for the children of concerned parents.

The slide is supported by another protective space that looks like an over-sized rabbit hutch. A family crouches in the padded space, but what sort of a community is this supposed to be ­ an alliance of new age adventurers, hunched together in a circle on the floor of inordinately large animal hutches made of stuff like cats' scratching-trees? The other, somewhat sad wish-machines in Höller's exhibition are reduced to technocratic suggestions that provide an isolated experience of happiness. Visitors can lie down and, placing their heads in the bulge of an aquarium, play at being divers. This is dull, and the shoals of fish swimming around would look better in a restaurant. Nearby, the child who is being thrown up in the air in the film is seen flying on a bird in a large-scale photomontage. Its the kind of Hippie kitsch that gripped the imagination of my parents when they named me after the author of fairy-tale happiness.

As Höller apparently cannot understand that viewers are capable of producing thoughts when confronted with an image, he has installed a roundabout in the middle of the room on which visitors are allowed to spin round a few times in order to experience something akin to the joy of flying. Seeking to clarify concepts by manufacturing their physical experience in this way is quite astonishingly inartistic. Almost any pleasure ride at a fair is more exciting. If Höller is concerned with the cheapness of promises of happiness, I wonder what his problem is. Certainly flying can give an idea of happiness, but definitely not in this slow variant, three metres above the floor of an art gallery. In general, the whole exhibition, with its tormented music, is reminiscent of an advertising 'event'. But it does not contain even the minimum of entertainment value needed for something of that kind. Höller's attempt to go pop on light food from the culture industry and get drunk on alcohol-free beer creates an astonishing longing for sober analysis, but what you get is neither genuine intoxication nor sensible thought.

Behind the non-digital flight simulator is a 'happiness pill' dispenser. But instead of Prozac, it gives out only Vitamin C mixed with milk powder. If there is a problem with chemical happiness inducers, it is that they work increasingly well ­ every child today knows that happiness can be produced artificially ­ and for the entrance price to the exhibition you can buy half an E elsewhere. Höller reproduces only a handful of stale variants of this effect, without developing any attitude or analysis. The exhibition screws down the attempt to mix art or science to a surprising level of stupidity. The biological insights that Höller uses for this are nothing but popular scientific commonplaces. It is not really so bad to occasionally transform art spaces into insipid pleasure parks, with cheap scientific illustrations and protected children's playgrounds, but it is really bad to reduce happiness to the possibilities of physiological effects of the kind that Höller parades. This conservative form of biology systematically fails to take account of the fact that 'happiness' is primarily a social issue.