Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

Tate Modern’s awesome Turbine Hall has become London’s most successful new public space. The museum’s free admissions policy and the sheer industrial scale of the hall (a lobby of this scale would have been inconceivable in a new building) have made it London’s socially acceptable arts mall and one of the city’s few genuinely popular collisions with contemporary architecture.

The challenge to artists to fill it in the Unilever Series has been at least as great a success. Olafur Eliasson’s “Weather Project” (the sun in the ceiling) had crowds basking on the concrete floor, peering lethargically up at their own reflections.

Carsten Höller’s new installation will, I think, equal Eliasson’s effort for popularity. In terms of scale it is innocuous enough. A series of metal chutes snakes down around steel poles from different gallery levels, terminating beneath the Turbine Hall’s bridge. They seem to borrow from the mundane language of construction and building maintenance, somewhere between the chutes builders use to dump material from upper levels into waiting skips and the serpentine, bowel-like ductwork that populates the dark areas behind the ceilings, walls and cores of all our contemporary air-
conditioned buildings.

If they were intended as purely sculptural, they would be weak and inadequate. But they are not. They are slides. Slides for people. The Turbine Hall is about to be turned into an adventure playground, its cavernous, serious silence to be punctuated by helter-
skelter screams of delight.

It is an absolutely extra-ordinary idea, and a brilliant one. It allows people to engage with the space in an entirely different way, to experience it through the art compounded by the visceral sensations of the effects of pure gravity. These are umbilical chords to the architecture, as much part of the building as they are installations within it.

Höller has recognised this in an unusual collaboration with London’s hippest architects and one of the city’s most original and innovative practices, Foreign Office Architects, in a project that attempts to draw conclusions about the way we could use slides in real buildings.

Appearing in the catalogue and on a matte backdrop behind the chutes in the Turbine Hall, these are intriguing, serious and yet oddball and entertaining proposals. The architects posit slides as an alternative (downward) circulation system, with lifts retained for the ascent. The result is a fiercely complex system of interconnections, with a slide having to connect each floor to each other floor.

Foreign Office have rationalised these into a woven web-like structure that then also becomes the building’s structural skin, the slides as an exoskeletal framework. It also functions as a fire-escape, efficient in terms of both speed of evacuation and efficient in terms of floor space. Just as in Höller’s installation, the idea here is to propose a new experiential system, a way to enjoy a building that becomes wrapped up in its functional everyday life. It is in fact a fine idea even if, like all new ideas, it takes a leap of faith to imagine it being taken up.

Höller’s installation, more than any other before it, needs people to make it complete. Louise Bourgeois’s towers were overwhelmed by our first impressions of the huge space and Juan Muñoz’s superb installation (featuring the elevators Höller’s work lacks) was similarly under-reviewed, unaccustomed as we were to the rigours of the space: it was only when Anish Kapoor blew his own great red trumpet with “Marsyas” that these installations really began to register.

Eliasson’s “Weather Project” was intended as a contemplative piece, forcing a new relationship with space, place and work, between viewer and viewed – although it became a crowded, bustling blockbuster. Bruce Nauman’s sound installation was among the most successful at filling the intimidating space but it was difficult to engage with and crowds just milled past, bemused at best. Rachel Whiteread’s white boxes, like mountains of sugar cubes, perhaps a sly reflection on the Tate bequest, physically filled the floorspace but somehow failed to make a big enough impression – so the floor is now open for Höller to make his mark.

The interactive nature of the proposal manages to blend the spectacular with the fairground theme that seems to have been preoccupying the artist (his last London show, at Gagosian, featured a giant carousel): the museum as pleasure palace, in which the user is encouraged to engage physically with the art.

The catalogue includes a lengthy and fascinating history of the slide, by Roy Kozlovsky, who points out that as an entertainment it is the newest of the four “S”s of the playground (swing, see-saw and sandpit make up the quartet) and seems to date from only the 1870s or so. It is also faintly ridiculous – think of the inflatable slides that would miraculously open before us if our aircraft were to fall out of the sky and land gently on the water.

There is the helter-skelter as a metaphor for a descent into a freakish madness, or the primordial slide from The Matrix, or the existential slide leading into the eponymous actor’s head in Being John Malkovich, the Scooby Doo trapdoor slides into the depths of haunted houses. It is a slippery slope, a letting go of control, a descent into the unpredictable, terrifying and exhilarating. As art it is thoughtful and seductive.

‘The Unilever Series: Carsten Höller’, Tate Modern Turbine Hall, London SE1, from October 10. Tel 20 7887 8888

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