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Carsten Höller

by Rachel Corbett

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If you want to experience the Carsten Höller retrospective at the New Museum, Oct. 26, 2011-Jan. 15, 2012, expect to sign a waiver at the door. “The artworks are not recreational,” it warns, and choosing to interact with them comes at your “own risk, even though such interactions are potentially hazardous.”

Don't be fooled by the dire warnings. The show, aptly titled “Experience,” turns four floors of the museum into a kind of a minimalist carnival. The centerpiece of the big show is Höller’s 102-foot-long Untitled (Slide) (2011), a tubular steel spiral that starts in a hole in the cement floor on the museum's fourth level and shoots you out about four seconds later onto a mat on the second floor. It's ostensibly designed to disrupt visitors’ sense of self-control, and it does have a clear plastic top, so your fellow art-lovers can see you screaming as you whiz by.

Other funhouse attractions include a room of flashing fluorescent lights, a barely rotating mirrored carousel, and a curved passageway that sways imperceptibly (it hangs from the ceiling rather than being anchored to the floor). The "thrill factor" of these last two installations increases perceptibly for visitors who wear Höller’s custom-made Upside-Down Goggles, headgear that inverts the visual field, to dizzying effect.

Checking these out at the front desk requires yet another waiver, and the deposit of a credit card (the goggles cost $2,500 each). For many visitors at the preview, just putting the things on at the counter was experience enough.

What could turn into a real party, however, is Höller’s Giant Psycho Tank (1999). Up to six people, wearing either their own bathing suits or nothing at all, can fit inside the enclosed pool of body-temperature water filled with Epsom salts. Such a “sensory-deprivation pool,” as Höller calls it, is designed to blur the boundaries of consciousness. If you don't remember what happened when William Hurt tried this in Altered States (1980), get thee to Netflix. 

As New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni points out, Höller has a Ph.D. in biology and in his former life as a scientist, researched olfactory communication among insects.

Höller’s sensory explorations extend to body chemistry, as is made more than clear by the series of sculptures of huge magic mushrooms installed at the back of the New Museum lobby. In a small chamber on the second floor, the artist has a stash of what he calls the Love Drug (PEA) (1993/2011), a glass vial containing the mood-enhancing chemical found in chocolate, phenylethylamine.

The brave museum-goer is welcome to lift the stopper and take a deep breath of the potion, rather like Alice through the Looking Glass, though this too is accompanied by a capital-letter warning. When Gioni himself tried it out, he seemed unaffected. But if art critics are in love with the show, well, don't be surprised.

Still more pills are available in Pill Clock (2011), where an unseen mechanical appliance drops white gel capsules from the ceiling into a glass box already brimming with thousands of them. A water cooler and cups are conveniently stationed nearby. The capsules are said to contain only the starchy food additive maltodextrin, but the jovial museum guard at the foot of the stairs insisted they contained "drops from the stars."

Such explorations have made the Stockholm-based artist very much in demand over his 18-year career. Remember his 2008 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, for which he transformed the museum's top ramp into an actual rent-by-the-night hotel room? Meanwhile, next week the Gugg gets back into the act when it opens the show of works by sometime Höller collaborator and fellow art-prankster Maurizio Cattelan. It looks like it's going to be a funhouse fall.

Carsten Höller, "Experience," Oct. 26, 2011-Jan. 15, 2012, at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, N.Y. 10002.

RACHEL CORBETT is the news editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email