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Alternative Realities: Carsten Höller's Immersive Environments Turn the World Upside Down

Some artists want to reveal truths in the world, while others want to challenge our perceptions thereof. In the case of Belgian-German artist Carsten Höller, the latter rings true, with his artworks acting as laboratories for viewers to experiment on, with and for themselves. His installations and all-encompassing environments—which range from participatory large-scale corkscrew metal slides to sensory deprivation tanks to upside-down mushroom wonder-lands—create situations in which familiar forms of logic and perceptions are questioned.

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Such an approach to an artistic practice might come as a surprise upon learning that Höller, who was born in 1961, earned a doctorate in biology, specifically agricultural entomology, with a specialization on insects’ olfactory com-munication strategies. Following his PhD, he worked as a research entomologist and even ran his own laboratory in Kiel, Germany. But during the late 1980s, he started making art and, while in Kiel, decided art interested him more than science. In 1994, he gave up his career as a researcher and began bringing the parameters of experiments to arts institutions while leaving all notions of hypotheses and tangible, measurable results behind. As such, when asked in an interview whether or not he sees his work as a bridge between science and art, Höller replied, “No, certainly not. I haven’t introduced scientific experiment into the art context, only the experimental form. … There’s no objective observer collecting data and drawing conclusions. There’s only the artwork and its viewers, who are subjected to a situation and called on to examine themselves.” One work that exemplifies this approach is ‘Y ‘(2003), a tunnel of lights reminiscent of those in funhouses at carni-vals. The tunnel encircles visitors and is in the shape of a Y, offering one entrance but two exits. Like a choose your own adventure book, visitors start at the same place but select their preferred exit without knowing what lies on the other end. The installation articulates the dilemma of individual choices; the viewer must make a decision and, both in the moment and retrospectively, consider how it will shape or has shaped their experience of the space and additional works to come.

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Carnival-esque aesthetics can be found in many of Höller’s other works, especially in works like ‘Mirror Carousel’ (2005), ‘Double Carousel’ (2011), and ‘Golden Mirror Carousel’ (2014). Each of these pieces borrow the visual form of flying swings with their giant central columns supporting platforms from which seats are suspended. In a typical flying swing ride, the column climbs higher and higher as the rotational velocity increases. The climax comes when the seats—and people sitting in them—swing almost horizontally due to the centrifugal force. In Höller’s versions, however, this rapid increase and resulting adrenaline rush are countered through the reversal of expectations. ‘Golden Mirror Carousel’ rotates at an almost painstakingly slow movement of one turn per five minutes, and the center column rotates in the opposite direction of the chairs. Combined, these effects might initially confuse visitors but then challenge them to remain where they are, submit to this slower pace and become lost in a movement of contemplation. A slow movement of contemplation is also evoked in Höller’s installation ‘Giant Psycho Tank’ (1999), a sensory deprivation pool where visitors can step away from the museum or gallery and into a weightless float.

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Yet situations that give rise to contemplation or that disrupt modes of perception must not always be slow. Höller’s tubular slides, which have been installed around the world from Miami to Copenhagen, from New York City to London, often propose alternative modes of transportation, spanning multiple floors of museums and shopping malls alike. At the New Museum in New York, holes were cut in three floors to allow his slide to twist through the building. Adults are whisked away by the force of gravity, instilling momentary loss of control and even causing some vertigo. “It proposes the idea not only of the slide as a means of transportation, but also as a tool for introducing a moment of real madness into daily life,” Höller once said. “If slides were everywhere—if architects would listen to me and stop building only stairs, escalators, and elevators—it would be a different world.” Höller also proposes different worldviews through works like ‘Upside-Down Goggles’ (2009-11) and Upside-Down Mushroom Room (2000), one of many works that reflect his ongoing fascination with psychoactive fly agaric mushrooms. The goggles change an individual’s mental and optical perception of a space, turning it upside-down with wearable tech, whereas Upside-Down Mushroom Room physically changes the space itself. Such a piece immerses viewers inside an alternate reality, harkening back to Höller’s initial interest in mushrooms and their psychedelic properties: in 1996, he took a dose of the active ingredient in fly agaric mushrooms and recorded its effects, resulting in his video ‘Muscimol’.

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While Höller might draw on scientific history and methodologies to develop his works and their pristine presentations, he “has a serious desire to make people doubt everything,” art historian, critic and curator Germano Celant has said. Instead of calling his works “art objects,” the artist is even known to prefer the term “confusion mechanisms.” Across his practice, Höller turns science on its head, deliberately upending expectations and causing confusion, to evoke associations of and offer adults experiences that are, objectively, filled with childlike fun. At the end of the day, his work, as Höller himself has said, aims “to escape…logic, to achieve a kind of extralogical uncertainty.”

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Text: Emily McDermott Images (Top to Bottom): Carsten Höller, Upside Down Mushroom Room, 2000 | Courtesy the artist and Fondazione Prada, Milan | Photograph Attilio Maranzano (1) - Carsten Höller, Upside Down Mushroom Room, 2000 | Courtesy the artist and Fondazione Prada, Milan | Photograph Attilio Maranzano (2) - Carsten Höller, Golden Mirror Carousel, 2014 | Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne | Photograph Attilio Maranzano (3) - Carsten Höller, Golden Mirror Carousel, 2014 | Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne | Photograph Attilio Maranzano (4) - Carsten Höller, Victoria Slide, 2011 | Stainless steel slide segments, polycarbonate upper shell, steel supports, and canvas mats for sliding | Installation view from Carsten Höller: Experience, New Museum, New York 2011 | Photograph Benoit Pailley | Courtesy the artist and VICTORIA - the Art of Being Contemporary Foundation, Moscow (5) - Carsten Höller, Victoria Slide, 2011 | Installation view from Carsten Höller: Experience, New Museum, New York 2011 | Photograph Benoit Pailley | Courtesy the artist and VICTORIA - the Art of Being Contemporary Foundation, Moscow (6) - Carsten Höller, Y, 2003 | Courtesy the artist, and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna | Photograph Attilio Maranzano (7) - Carsten Höller, Mirror Carousel, 2005 | Courtesy: Esther Schipper, Berlin | Photograph Attilio Maranzano (8) - Carsten Höller, Mirror Carousel, 2005 | Steel, mirrors mounted on MDF panels, light bulbs, motor | Courtesy: Esther Schipper, Berlin | Photograph Attilio Maranzano (9) - Carsten Höller, Giant Psycho Tank, 1999 | Polypropylen, Meß-, Steuerund Regelanlage für Salzwasserbecken, Magnesiumsulfat, Stahlrohrgerüst | Photograph Jens Ziehe (10) - Carsten Höller, Giant Psycho Tank, 1999 | Polypropylen, Meß-, Steuer- und Regelanlage für Salzwasserbecken, Magnesiumsulfat, Stahlrohrgerüst | Photograph Jens Ziehe (11) - Carsten Höller, Giant Psycho Tank, 1999 | Polypropylen, Meß-, Steuer- und Regelanlage für Salzwasserbecken, Magnesiumsulfat, Stahlrohrgerüst | Photograph Jens Ziehe (12)