On the Carsten Höller exhibit at the New Museum

The Belgian-born, Swedish-resident, German artist Carsten Höller is a bit of a trickster and his work at its worst can feel like a gimmick.  His current exhibit ‘Experience‘ at the New Museum on the Bowery in New York (through 15 January 2012) is billed as “the most comprehensive US exhibition to date of the artist’s engaging work” but the results feel more slight than that sounds.  There are simply too few compelling experiences for an exhibit of this name, but the experience of one — called “Untitled (Slide)” though one wonders why it couldn’t have been called “Slide” — merits the entrance and long wait.

First, the disappointments.  Just past the museum entrance is an understaffed table with long lines where visitors are obliged to sign a legal waiver, which unfairly raise expectations about the wild adventures ahead.  This starts to feel ludicrous when you sit in one of the hanging metal seats on the “Mirror Carousel” (2005) and realize that the almost imperceptible rotation is not, as it first seems, preparatory to something more exciting but is all that is ever going to happen.  I stared at the multi-angled mirrors at the center of the carousel with some determination and it is possible to make something interesting of the reflections, though not much.  On the floor below, the “Swinging Curve” (2009) is a short curving white tunnel that inspires no lingering or engagement of any sort that I could see in others or felt myself.  Even the elaborate goggles that render the world upside down don’t help much.  The “Giant Psycho Tank” (2000) is a large enclosed tank of water which visitors enter, one by one, strip off their clothes and float in for as long as they feel like monopolizing this installation to the exclusion of everyone else in the long line snaking out.  I despaired of ever getting through and, anyway, recalled a similar installation at PS1 one summer of an open-air sauna so I joined the equally long but faster moving line for the slide.

Höller’s slides have been installed elsewhere — notably the Tate Modern — but the New Museum seems the right context for it.  The most striking aspect of the museum is the building itself; in particular, the signature off-kilter facade, since the interior spaces have always seemed all ceiling height and no width and so smaller than they ought to be for a building of that scale.  Höller has punched a hole into the fourth floor and run a steel tube in a spiral through the third to the second, part of a long tradition of reinventing the use of museum space.  You perch yourself at the start of the slide on a white carpet, sticking your feet in the pocket, and then are given a series of legal liability-reducing instructions on how to position your arms and torso.  At first, the slide is almost exactly as you imagine it will be and then, suddenly, you realize that the gentle slope is significantly steeper than anticipated and the acceleration therefore quite a bit faster — this is the moment that, when you were waiting at the slide entrance, you heard earlier riders’ screams echoing up the metal tube.  And so, for a second or two, you are in a sedate secular chapel of high art and totally out of control.  It’s an exhilarating experience and not to be missed.

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Click here to read about the night they projected videos on the facade of the New Museum (and showed a trippy video about heaven and hell in the cathedral).  Or here to read my dissenting review of the supposedly “game changing” Ryan Trecartin exhibit at PS1.  Or here to discover how my journey to Beirut ended up on an art gallery wall.

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