Carsten Höller (*1961 in Brussels, Belgium) lives and works in Cologne and Stockholm. He has an advanced degree in agricultural science and has been making art since the 1980s. He participated in the Venice Biennial in 1993 and 2005, and he and Rosemarie Trockel produced a work for the 1997 documenta X. Höller's art is on display in the important international museums.
On Mushrooms, Mice, and other Realities
»I’m very interested in the idea of the double, not as a way of questioning reality – what’s real or what’s fake – but of taking away certainty. It’s an attitude that there could be two things at the same time. You don’t have to make a decision; you could live with both options.« (Carsten Höller)
Ever since he installed two gigantic slides in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, and over three million visitors plunged fifty-five meters—over three stories—down into the depths, screaming all the way—Londoners have loved him, too. It was one of the most successful installations in the history of large sculptural works of art, but most of all, it provided a unique sensory and physical experience of art.
It is almost impossible to avoid the work of German artist/biologist Carsten Höller, since his art challenges us to interact with it, and conduct our own experiments, so that we learn something special about ourselves and others. For instance, there is Lichtecke (Light corner, 2001), the 1920 light bulbs that rhythmically cast light and warmth at us, or the visual phenomena created by the synchronization of brain activity with flickering light in Instrumente aus dem Kiruna Psycholabor (Instruments from the Kiruna Psychology Lab, 2001). Not to forget his Umkehrbrille (reversing glasses) in Manchester (2008), in which volunteers spent eight days turning their perception upside-down, in a work reminiscent of psychologist George Stratton and his first optical experiments with reverse vision, when he was trying to discover if the brain could adapt to inverted vision.
The phenomenon of human sensory perception and the accompanying way that we construct our own selves form the special character of his work. Still, Höller is never looking for particular results, but rather, is interested in consciousness and the involvement of viewers in his work. Even his earliest works from the 1990s often recall scientific experiments, in which test subjects or objects were subjected to precisely planned conditions that provided them with extraordinary experiences. A visitor to Höller’s shows is always simultaneously a test subject and the person conducting the experiment.
Drehendes Hotelzimmer (Revolving hotel room, 2008) offers a special experience. It is a minimally furnished room set on three rotating sheets of glass, and visitors are invited to spend the night in the middle of the show, among mushrooms, canaries, mirrors , reindeer, mice, carousels, and all of the other kinds of “Höller” objects. The hotel guest does not simply witness the display of representative objects in an exclusive space, but rather, methodically experiences the sensitivity of changing, immediate influences on his environment. The experiment provokes people to examine their own perception and the knowledge stemming from it. Reactions such as doubt and a loss of one’s sense of direction are aroused, and the supposed “givens”—right up to euphoria and fun—are generally questioned. And even though Höller is always transforming places into a new world, or in other words, turning them upside-down, he specializes in maintaining the balance between the idea and its playful realization. Höller would not be Höller, if his installations were not surrounded by a scaffolding of theory.
The artist has been well-known in Germany since his participation in the documenta X, at the latest, where he and Rosemarie Trockel built the Haus für Schweine und Menschen (House for pigs and people). In recent years Höller has frequently experimented with mushrooms, going so far as to consume a fly agaric in order to study its hallucinogenic effects. However, in his work Höller is pursuing an ancient Vedic myth—more of a cultural science study than something esoteric. He is looking for “soma,” a healing drink that promised knowledge and access to the divine sphere, used in rituals during the second century BCE, but whose contents have never actually been entirely accurately ascertained. Using these facts, Höller developed wonderful, huge tableaux vivants, as well as laboratories that deal with art and science, laboratory and vision, supposed objectivity and intensified subjectivity. And set on a mushroom-shaped platform rising up in the midst of the construct is—a hotel room.
November 8, 2010 Caroline Schilling