Museums

Feeling Unengaged at Carsten Höller’s New Museum Playground

by Howard Hurst on October 31, 2011

Psycho Tank, 1999. Installation view, “Une Exposition a Marseille,” Musee d’Art Contemporain, Marseille, France, 2004. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Attilio Maranzano (via newmuseum.org)

There has been a fair amount of buzz surrounding Carsten Höller. His “mid-career” retrospective/whole building takeover of the New Museum opened last week. The New York Times felt pretty great about it. Determined to see for myself, I wandered into the space last Friday with a relatively open mind. My only previous knowledge of the artist was from his installation of slides in the massive turbine hall at the Tate Modern in London a couple of years ago. His installation there was pretty well received. Though I never saw it in person, it is easy to imagine how the installation fits into the Tate’s turbine hall shtick. Like Olafur Eliasson’s sun, or Ai Weiwei’s field of sunflower seeds, Höller’s slides were engaging and dramatic. They served as an anti-pretentious pallet cleanser, a preparatory shot of courage before heading into the art-soaked wilderness of that museum.

A photo of the "Mirror Carousel" (2005) via the Experience tumblelog created by the New Museum (via experiencewiki-newmuseum.tumblr.com_

For his retrospective in New York, the New Museum has seized the spirit of the Tate’s front hallway and let it run amok. The exhibit, which is entitled Experience takes the tone of relational aesthetics and renders it personal and dramatic. His slew of installations are meant to impact the viewer in unexpected and visceral ways. When painter Barnett Newman ran for mayor of New York City, his platform included a proposal for a playground for adults. In this light, the 4th floor gallery of the museum looks pretty interesting. An Alexander Calder inspired mobile sculpture, bearing a cluster of bird filled cages, dangles from the ceiling. Their occupants fill the space with a disarming chorus of tweets. This injection of off kilter life is a welcome intervention into the cold, neutral space. A slow moving, mirrored, carousel bearing swings sits next to the entrance of Höller’s signature slide. This floor echoes with a welcome reminder that it’s ok to goof off, to smile, and to enjoy yourself — even in a museum.

On the floors below there is a bin of white placebo pills, ready for the taking, a sensory deprivation chamber, goggles that flip your vision and a slew of other manufactured experiences. While the overarching tone is one of involvement — the result is anything but consistent. Where the top floor refreshed, the rest seemed to falter.

The artist, who used to be a scientist, relishes switching gears. “Viewer” is no longer an appropriate term, the museum visitor is prompted to slide down, bathe in, ingest and don the art. I imagine an ultra-lightweight boxer, dashing around his opponent, landing blows from all sides. Though none of them are particularly substantial, the strategy is about disorientation. The slide, the pool, the room full of flashing lights and psychedelically colored animals are all quite engaging. Unfortunately, the rest of the exhibition seems to fall flat. I appreciate the idea of family fun, and the visitor friendly — children’s museum-esque — tactic, but there is little content beneath the flash and splash.

I was left feeling, somewhat indifferent to the whole experience. For an exhibition that emphasizes bodily, visceral engagement, I felt remarkably unengaged. At the very least I got to ride a slide from the 4th to the 2nd floor of a museum, and that was cool. While cool is fine, I would hope for a bit more from a museum wide retrospective. Hey New Museum, we are all waiting to be impressed. I like you, I really do, I’m just not quite sure why. Like a delinquent step child with a drinking problem, you mean well but always seem to disappoint.

Carsten Höller’s Experience exhibition continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until January 15, 2012.

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