Twisted ways of seeing: Interview with Carsten Höller

Höller has a PhD in insect communication, but he abandoned the rules of science for the “subjective experience” of art


Carsten Höller’s disorienting works are better described as “experiential” than merely “visual”. He’s made sculptures of giant mushrooms that viewers walk around and through, losing a sense of perspective; he’s made carousels, slides that are meant to be slid down, glasses that “turn” the world upside down, a functioning restaurant/nightclub, sensory deprivation tanks, hotel rooms situated in museums. His career to date has been dedicated, in many ways, to the pursuit of what he has called “doubleness”.

The artist has his first major solo exhibition in New York, a show curated by Massimiliano Gioni at the New Museum, from 26 October to 15 January 2012. His Double Carousel with Zöllner Stripes—the set of brightly lit merry-go-rounds spinning slowly in opposite directions that won him the Enel Contemporanea prize—goes on view at Rome’s Macro Museum of Contemporary Art from 30 November to March 2012.

Höller, 49, trained as a scientist, earning his PhD in agricultural science, with a specialisation in insect communication strategies, from the University of Kiel. Even after he started making art, in the late 1980s, he continued to work as a research entomologist until 1994.

Since 1996, when curator Nicolas Bourriaud first defined the term “relational aesthetics”, Höller’s work has been associated with the concept, as has that of Rirkrit Tiravanija, Pierre Huyghe and other artists whose work encourages interaction. Three years ago, Höller’s Revolving Hotel Room—an opportunity for an overnight stay in the Guggenheim Museum in New York—was included there as part of the exhibition “theanyspacewhatever”, a survey of work by relational-aesthetics artists.

The Art Newspaper: Why is your exhibition at the New Museum called “Experience”?

Carsten Höller: It has to do with something beyond purely visual experience.

You consider exhibitions to be works of art?

Yes. Which change with the architecture in which they are shown.

How will that play out at the New Museum?

I want to have works in the two elevators and a slide to emphasise the building’s verticality. Often as an artist you have a show in a museum and you have the feeling that the building is meant to be empty. It doesn’t necessarily look better if it’s filled with art. In 2005, I was invited, with Miriam Backstrom, to the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The building is beautiful, but from the moment you put art in there, it doesn’t look as good any more. That applies to a number of new museums. You get a “Moby Dick” feeling, as an artist. You’re invited to make a show in a sculpture. It’s like being in the belly of the whale.

In manipulating the space with a slide, for instance, do you create something new?

Yes, but it’s also a way for me to defend myself against this “Moby Dick” effect. It’s like a dispute you are having with your surroundings, which are supposedly neutral, with grey floors and white walls and so on, but as we all know, they’re not.

Why did you leave science for art?

There was an interest in art that was growing, and also a frustration with science that was growing.

I could see how my life would continue if I stayed in science: become a professor, take over a faculty. I thought ‘it’s time to move on’. There was an artists’ bar in front of my apartment in Kiel, and I used to go there after work sometimes and have a beer, and I got to know some people, and they gave me some things to read. I was very hungry for everything about contemporary art. I read for a few years before I seriously started to do anything.

You recently said of science: “It feels like a different life now.” But so much of your art seems related to science. You’ve said that “the real material I work with is people’s experience” and you think of life as “an experiment on oneself”.

Subjective personal experience in science is a no-no. In starting to make art, I wanted to bring in what had been forbidden.

With slides and upside-down glasses, you’re altering people’s perspectives on the world—as experiments?

Some of my pieces are manipulative. I had a slide in Boston in 2003 at the ICA and we said to people “we’ll give you $100 if you come down without smiling”, and they just couldn’t do it. If you see the world upside down, it’s going to be upside down. There’s no way you can correct it unless you close your eyes and imagine how it was before. You subject yourself to the influence and you see what it does with you. It’s a tool that you can use to manipulate the way you perceive the outside world, and yourself in it.

In his account of staying overnight in the Guggenheim in Revolving Hotel Room, critic Jerry Saltz wrote: “The Guggenheim, where I’d been a thousand times, looked utterly new to me.” He compared it to having sex with the museum.

I liked his piece. It was funny. It was ideal in the Guggenheim because the Guggenheim is already like a spiral. To lie in bed and revolve in this spiral creates a specific confusion that can be productive. Many works of mine are confusing, in that they take away something that you take for granted and then confront you with a completely new situation, and you have to find a way to deal with it. Sleeping in a museum—I didn’t see the sexual side of it. But I do have that feeling he had in the moments when I’m waking up. If it’s a good day, it takes ten minutes; I really like this moment. Everything is still in flux. To wake up with art—and architecture, as at the Guggenheim—is the ideal situation. The art you have closest to the bed is the most important.

How is Revolving Hotel Room different at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen?

There are fantastic Rubens and Bosch paintings, and you could see them at night, alone, with a flashlight. These masterpieces were not made to be presented in the light we show them in. There was no electric light when they were painted.

At the Guggenheim, that piece was part of an exhibition of artists associated with relational aesthetics, such as Maurizio Cattelan. While your show is at the New Museum, Cattelan’s show opens at the Guggenheim, in November. In the 1990s, he cloned an exhibition of yours. How do you feel about the term “relational aesthetics”?

It made its way into the discussion, so there is some truth to it. But I don’t think anybody really identifies with it. I don’t know anybody who says: “I’m a relational-aesthetics artist.” I wouldn’t say it. Some of my works have to do with what [curator and critic] Nicolas Bourriaud describes in his book [of the same name], but most of them are based on personal experience, and not so much on some form of exchange with other people. It’s really about the relationship you have to yourself, and I don’t think that’s what Nicolas meant.

For your exhibition “Soma”, at Hamburger Bahnhof last year, visitors paid E1,000 to stay overnight above a space occupied by 12 castrated reindeer, 24 canaries, eight mice and two flies. The reindeer were fed a special mushroom, which potentially made their urine hallucinogenic.

That was my most scientific show. The whole set-up is a straightforward scientific one: two identical situations. The space was divided in two, and you had six reindeers on one side and six reindeers on the other side and so forth. The scientific question would be: if you keep this as similar as possible on these two sides, if you add only one factor, and you observe a change in the side where you added this factor, then it means this factor would produce this effect. In science, these are called ceteris paribus conditions: it means that in the future, if you repeat a set-up like this one and you apply the same factor, you would get the same result. People who came there weren’t only spectators. They were also experimenters.

You share a house in Ghana with artist Marcel Odenbach. How did you become interested in Africa?

I have the house in Ghana, and I travel often to central Africa, to the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m a big fan of the music, and I’m working with a Swedish film director on a film about the music there. The first time I went to Africa, I was 25 and I went to Benin to visit a friend. I was completely unprepared, and I thought about how there are a number of things in our culture where we have agreed about how we should behave or think about some things, and then there are other ways of doing it that are absolutely fascinating. In some cultures, where people are comparatively unhappy, the amount of effort that is made in order to create a perfectly designed environment is high. So there seems to be a correlation between those things. It has to do with how your persona relates to what is around you. And that seems to be quite different in the west African countries, but also in Congo, Kinshasa. We have a great deal to learn from that.

How do you spend your time in Ghana?

I go there to conceive a show, or write, or read. It’s very good for that. You are a bit cut off there. The internet is slow. Mostly I am there in the winter.

You curated an exhibition from Jean Pigozzi’s collection, called “Japan/Congo”, combining art from contemporary Japanese and Congolese artists. It closed last month at the Garage Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow. In addition to being a curated exhibition, did you also consider it a work of art?

Yes. The work of other artists can be good raw material. It’s a proposition for looking at the world with a double perspective, instead of a single, hierarchical one. I live in Stockholm and Ghana. It’s an ideal combination because you have two very different cultures, and instead of trying to find one place, I think it’s much better to find two different ones that fit your structure of being a double-sided person.

You said of that show: “At the end of the day, it’s not about cultural differences any more, but what remains when you subtract one from the other. Hopefully what comes is an understanding of the pure language of contemporary art that is not influenced by where we come from.” Can there really be a “pure language of contemporary art”? Isn’t everything culturally inflected?

The exhibition was an attempt to bring out the pure language of contemporary art by making the cultural differences obvious. Subtract one thing and what remains is a pure form. I really believe there is something that is specific to contemporary art. It’s hard to speak about—it has to do with a certain simultaneousness. It’s something that goes like a gunshot, bullets flying around. If it’s good, it can hit you in a simultaneous way.

Carsten Höller, “Experience”, New Museum, New York, 26 October-15 January 2012