In person, Carsten Höller is delightful. Pinning him down, however, tests the nerves. Our meeting is due to take place at 4.30pm at Macro, Rome’s municipal contemporary art museum. This is the setting for “Double Carousel with Zöllner Stripes”, a new work by the Stockholm-based artist that has been awarded the Enel Contemporanea art prize.
Chosen by an international jury that includes Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel gallery, and Massimiliano Gioni of the Trussardi Foundation, the prize, sponsored by the cultural arm of the Italian electricity company, is one of the most prestigious events on the Italian contemporary art calendar.
Right now, however, Enel’s normally unflappable PR officer, is a little ruffled. Höller, she tells me, is not hugely media-friendly and, although we have an appointment, she is loath to corral him.
For some time, then, we hover while the artist, a slight, balding figure in black leather jacket and jeans, drifts hesitantly around the cavernous gallery in the company of his curator Francesco Bonami. His diffident air couldn’t be more at odds with the monumental power of “Double Carousel”. Adorned with flashing coloured lights, their swing seats suspended by precarious-looking chains, these two enormous, vintage merry-go-rounds gyrate not at their original shriek-inducing speed but with ceremonial slowness. Gaudy, shabby and cumbersome, they are dinosaurs of fun – de trop in an age where amusement comes packed in sleek, pocket-sized, digital gadgets.
Compounding the strangeness are the black and white arrow-shaped stripes rippling across the walls that are based on an optical illusion by German astrophysicist Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner. Brooding over the ensemble, a large screen shows a video of the carousels occupied by identically dressed sets of twins. As they make their ponderous circuit, each pair meets in a moment of fleeting, doomed symmetry.
Eventually we have our appointment. Sitting in Macro’s space-age cafeteria with espresso and sparkling water, Höller says the germ of “Double Carousel” was born in 1998, when he exhibited a similar merry-go-round slowed down to the extent that “you had to look at the shadow to see that it was moving”.
By then, Höller had begun his ascent to the pinnacle of the contemporary art world in the company of artists such as Maurizio Cattelan and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Dubbed relational aesthetics, their work – heavy on performance and interactivity, light on manuality and conventional beauty – presented art as a community event rather than an object for contemplation.
Today Höller’s propensity for installations that make physical demands on visitors – most famously 2006’s metal slides in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall – has seen critics accuse him of treating spectators like lab rats. Yet Höller himself couldn’t be more gentle. Indeed, so quiet is his voice that I fear it might not register above the clattering of the barista so he suggests we go to the roof terrace. Deaf to the laments of a museum custodian – “It is forbidden to use that exit!” – he stalks up the stairs with me trotting behind.
Höller once described his works as “confusion machines”. Once we are settled on low-slung chairs in the Roman twilight, I ask him why incomprehension is valuable.
“We could talk about this for two weeks,” he whispers, betraying a seriousness that distinguishes him from more irony-drunk peers. Essentially, he argues, science has allowed us to get “our outer world under control” yet impeded access to “some other world which is certainly there”.
Although he never specifies characteristics, this utopia appears to be more natural and spontaneous – “animals live in it” – than our post-Enlightenment territory. “How do we get there?” he asks rhetorically. “I would say the first thing is to get confused about all our knowledge that has brought us to this point.” What he is calling for, however, is a “collective confusion ... It should be like an expedition, a conscious decision to get confused, to end up somewhere else. Not the idea of some visionary who says ‘This way, follow me!’ ”
Art, which he describes as “the other side of science”, is Höller’s weapon for breaking the stifling bonds of reason. Yet it is is an uphill struggle to persuade him to talk about the practical steps required to transform himself from someone who studied insect communications to an artist so on-trend he could, in 2008, convince the Guggenheim in New York to let him turn the museum into a hotel room.
“I decided to stop being a scientist and become an artist!” he declares mischievously, clearly diverted by my vain attempt to elicit details.
As our conversation ranges from aphids to Althusser, a picture emerges of a polymath fuelled by brilliance, boredom– “the big things [in biology] have been done, there’s nothing to discover” – and a healthy dose of personal ambition. “As a scientist, I realised I would be looking at tiny details that 50 people in the world are going to find interesting.”
Art, on the other hand, was still a “mumbling baby”, which offered the chance to develop a “strong, new language”. Inspired by a high school teacher, Winfried Noll, who taught both art and biology, Höller had always been keen on the more creative discipline. Asked why he didn’t pursue it from the outset, his answer – “I thought I could always be an artist but not a scientist” – could be interpreted as post-Duchampian disdain for academic training. To be fair, however, he always knew how to draw. Indeed, the insect identification guide he illustrated is still in use; his first works as an artist were “cartoon-like” paintings.
Nevertheless, it is a sign of our times that he approached his new discipline through texts rather than tools. “I read everything I could read. If it had art on it, I read it.”
Ultimately, it was the master of the ready-made who captured his imagination. “There is a book of interviews with Duchamp and Pierre Cabanne ... I didn’t understand it at the time but when I re-read it two years ago I thought ‘Wow! A lot of your ideas have been influenced by it’.”
Yet, unlike many post-Duchampian artists, who are merely agents provocateurs, Höller is motivated by a genuine spirit of discovery. The carousels, for example, are instruments for exploring the concept of fun, which he describes revealingly as a “driving force that you don’t have control over. An internal parasite ... ”
By placing a merry-go-round in a museum he hopes to “give you [the] right setting to think about it ... to look critically – because they don’t amuse you any more because they are too slow”.
In an age when the boundaries between art and critical theory have never been thinner, Höller’s reminder that the unexamined life is not worth living is far from revolutionary. What makes him unusual, however, is that he is simultaneously a child of the Enlightenment – his experimental approach stems from his scientific training – yet profoundly doubtful of the power of orthodox reason.
When I point out this contradiction, he says: “That’s why we do it with art because we can’t do it with language. Otherwise, you have to speak two languages at the same time, or say two things at the same time which can be completely opposite.”
“Double Carousel” might be a sign that his athletic mind is exploring new, more emotional pastures. “I thought it would be nice to have two [merry-go-rounds] interacting as if they were in love or something. To bring people together and then further away ... It is romantic and tragic at the same time.”
As he starts to tell me about a book he has just read on the birth of romanticism, the PR arrives to tell us our time is up. By now, the terrace is plunged in darkness, yet I feel I have only scratched the surface of his imagination.
The next day Höller causes considerable disruption by cancelling, and then reinstating, all press appointments including our photographer.
Perhaps this is what he means by whipping up collective confusion. Nevertheless, even if I hadn’t watched him storm up that staircase, he would still remain pretty visionary to me.