November 4, 2011 7:35 pm

Carsten Höller: Experience, New Museum, New York

The Belgian artist has transformed the entire museum into a dystopian carnival in his effort to rattle our perceptions

In the end I didn’t go into the “Giant Psycho Tank”. I vacillated right up to the last minute. I even brought a swimsuit to the museum, though you’re supposed to immerse yourself nude in the sensory deprivation pool. But, faced with a long queue and the semi-public nature of bathing alone in an exhibition, I balked.

Even without a float in the aquatic artwork – now accommodating only one visitor at a time, on the orders of New York’s City Health Department – Carsten Höller: Experience offers enough rides, tricks and strange machines to transform the entire New Museum into a dystopian carnival. Höller, a Belgian entomologist-turned-artist, wants to mess with our circuitry and rattle our perceptions. Unsurprisingly, I spent most of my visit feeling jazzed, nauseated and apprehensive.

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The first apparatus I came across was a transparent tubular slide that snakes through the building, punching through two floors. I wasn’t ready for this, and wasn’t sure I ever would be. Instead, I opted for the tamer-looking “Mirror Carousel”, where a dangling chair beckoned with its gentle sway. The ride turned with maddening slowness, though, while in the reflective facets of the central column, another me was being exploded, spun and recomposed.

Downstairs, the “Pill Clock” dispensed gelatin capsules that popped from the ceiling at regular intervals and piled up in an enormous glass-walled trough. Next to it stood a water cooler. The pile of crumpled paper cups suggested that other, braver souls had knocked back the mystery medicine, so I grabbed one of the oversize horse pills and, gagging, forced it down. I don’t know what kind of drug the capsule contained, but the room shrank, my limbs ballooned, colours exploded from the ceiling, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” blared in my brain. Or perhaps not; try it yourself and see what happens.

Höller’s allusions to Alice’s Wonderland become explicit in the troop of sculptural mushrooms that sprout from the floor. Each freaky fungus is an amalgam of three different species, fused at the stem. The ’shrooms take on a menacing cast when viewed through goggles that turn things upside down and switch right and left. My knees wobbled the moment I donned these sinister specs, and I had to inch along the wall to keep my balance.

Höller means his “confusion machines” to throw off our sense of time and make us doubt our perceptions. We are insects in his aesthetic laboratory but, unlike our arthropod cousins, we participate in his experiments by choice. Before entering the museum, visitors must sign a release form warning that “the artworks are not recreational” and that we experience them at our “own risk, even though such interactions are potentially hazardous”.

Back in his entomology days, Höller studied olfactory communication among bugs. Here, he sets out a stoppered bottle of phenylethylamine, a chemical found in chocolate that is supposed to induce amorous arousal. A small label nearby warns that those sensitive to odours might want to abstain from sniffing the “Love Drug”. I wavered, but finally uncorked the vial and took the nasal plunge. I smelled nothing at all, and did not feel any onrush of passion for the equally puzzled lady who took the next hit.

Höller hopes to teach people to question their certainties and senses, to consider alternate realities. But what I learned was something quite different: I’m not, by inclination, a risk-taker. And I don’t like to give up control. Höller’s provocations made me want to walk away – but I had a job to do.

Which brings me, after much procrastination, to that intimidating slide. I waited uneasily for my turn. When the time came I stepped into a sack that bore a nagging resemblance to a condemned man’s hood. Then I was hurtling into the darkness, banging into the flanks of the tube as I looped downward. I emerged, screaming, before a crowd of onlookers with cameras, who seemed to anticipate each re-enacted birth with bloodthirsty curiosity. I left the museum, and slipped gratefully back into the bath of banal existential illusions that Höller is so eager to dispel.

‘Carsten Höller: Experience’ continues until January 15, www.newmuseum.org

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