Most art collectors pay for the pieces they love in dollars (millions, even, if you’re looking to invest in a Damien Hirst), but after immersing myself in Carsten Höller‘s Experience at the New Museum, I paid for it with a bruised tailbone, waterlogged ears, and a film of salt I’m still removing from my eyelashes. The experimental German artist unveiled his new exhibition yesterday, a retrospective that altogether erases the separation between the viewer and the work through audience participation.
Before Höller dove into the art world, he was a scientist with a doctorate in Insect Olfactory Communication Strategies (it’s a thing, apparently). Although he left bugs behind in 1993, Höller hasn’t completely eschewed the lab. Many of his artworks are pseudo experiments, and the New Museum was virtually transformed into a test site for human perception. Some of the piece deal with logic, as was the case with a series of giant, three-dimesonial mushrooms (a Brobdingnagian trifecta of oyster, portobello, and psychedelic fungi) and a zoo of Crayola-colored animal sculptures. Other works subjected the viewer to physical tests, which involved sliding down a 102-foot steel slide as part of a pneumatic transportation alternative (hence the busted tailbone), rotating around a mirrored carousel at a snail’s pace, or floating in the “Giant Psycho Tank.”
The title of that piece is a bit misleading for such a meditative experience. The ivory polypropylene structure looks like IKEA’s version of a bathhouse, inviting visitors to float weightlessly in a salt-dense “sensory deprivation pool.” Deprivation doesn’t seem to be the right word either, as the break from NYC overstimulation felt closer to “liberation.” The avant artist encourages direct participation with the piece—so direct in fact, that bathing wear is decidedly discouraged, a suggestion the guy ahead of me happily adhered to (and happily continued to adhere to as I entered the space).
Other highlights included “Aquarium,” a fish tank outfitted with three beds, the heads of which extend beneath the tank, simulating the effect of treading underwater. If you have a fear of drowning, abstain—fish appear to float across your face. The “Infrared Room,” which contains infrared cameras that project three versions of yourself onto a screen, was also a hit among the press preview’s gathered journalists, who are nothing if not a narcissistic bunch. If that isn’t mindbending enough, Star Trek-style glasses that turn your world upside down and backwards (beer goggles?) are also provided.
After literally sliding my way to the exit, I left the museum with the same post-whirlwind feeling you get as a kid leaving a fair, my wet hair reminiscent of a turn in the dunk-tank. Thrilling as it was, Höller’s exhibit is more than mere entertainment; it’s also a challenge against understood modes of perceiving the world.
Experience is on display at the New Museum until January 15.