1. I originally considered writing in a standard review format, but Carsten Höller’s retrospective Decision, currently on view at London’s Hayward Gallery, is more amenable to the listicle form.
2. Why? Because like a reductive narrative of the Egyptian revolution illustrated with Jurassic Park GIFs, the retrospective takes the stance that populism and approachability are incongruous with complexity and intellectual challenge. The Egyptian revolution listicle and Decision alike expose people who might not regularly read the news or visit a major art museum to those spaces, but at a considerable cost.
3. Before Decision even opened, I was informed that it would be very popular this summer. I wasn’t surprised. In the retrospective, Höller inserts an aesthetically pleasing fun fair into the Hayward’s Brutalist exhibition space. You might have seen or read about Gagosian’s booth at Frieze London this past year, which featured a Höller-designed playground for children; this installation is the bloated, adult version of that one. Höller speaks matter-of-factly (or uncritically, depending on who you ask) about the nature of the retrospective, saying: “This exhibition is a kind of funfair, but that’s what exhibitions are these days.”
4. At the Hayward, the viewer-cum-participant navigates various slick spectacles — my personal favorite was fat-bellied pink snakes lying uselessly on the floor — including a mushroom mobile, a “flying machine,” and the artist’s trademark giant slides, which via their coils vomit the viewer toward gallery exits. From time to time, the exhibition-goer must make a decision: Which of the semi-darkened tunnels, A or B, will you choose to navigate? Will you risk swallowing one of the synthetic red-and-white pills raining from the ceiling?
5. Yet choice is illusory here. The tunnels, termed “Decision Corridors,” are virtually the same in structure and ejection point, and no one around me was considering taking the pills, probable placebos which had collected into a small mound of plastic, virtually untouched. Even an abundance of choice becomes specious when the options are interchangeable or irrelevant. Cue a lame joke about Höller being an entomologist prior to being a contemporary artist, and us being ants on his farm, ruminating over a selection of tiny tunnels.
6. The false choice phenomenon at work in Decision made me think about late capitalism, about how all of the choices consumers are presented with might conceal an ultimate lack of one. Big, bright, and shiny, the objects in Höller’s arrangement reproduce not only a fun fair but also an art fair aesthetic. The retrospective’s giant dice (a version of which was displayed at the aforementioned Gagosian booth) and large blinking lights recall art fair booths trying to one-up each other with dazzling displays; for all the options, the works start to look pretty similar, a visual display of the homogenizing forces of globalization and capital.
7. Höller’s jumbo spiraling slides, a #TBT to the five giant slides he installed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2006, are intended to catalyze “an emotional state that is a unique condition somewhere between delight and madness.” There is something to be said for bodily experiences — induced or accidental, sought or stumbled-upon — that wrench you out of the everyday. And the transgressive potential of festival and reckless fun is certainly worth a conversation.
8. But Decision doesn’t push far enough beyond the amusement park. In the artist’s original vision, roving beds on wheels moved throughout the museum, even up and down in elevators, but that never came to fruition. While the roving beds do exist, they feebly totter around a confined space. And when it comes to being disorienting or overwhelming, the famous art slides, while certainly diverting, fall short. In the age of the experience economy, art fairs and galleries are — along with everyone else — so frequently aiming to produce entertaining experiences that a fun fair decontextualization doesn’t count for as much as the artist might want it to. This may be where relational aesthetics dead-ends, reproducing the corporate space it originally sought an alternative to.
9. I like mindless fun, even when I am saturated with it, because I am a human being. But art is a space where I can ask for something richer. Decision infantilizes its viewers by catering to our craving for easy entertainment, for a noninvasive experience you can put away when you’re done. We are not gumming babies, traumatized by the appearance of teeth. Give me something with bite.
Carsten Höller: Decision continues at Hayward Gallery (Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London) through September 6.