I’ve never been to an exhibition where so many people were leaving with broad grins. The means of exit (two giant slides) may have been responsible for this but not completely. I’d like to think to think that there was more to the exhibition that caused such happiness.
Carsten Holler might not have the obvious credentials for the house of fun.
He was born in Brussels to German parents in 1961 and trained as a scientist. His PHD was in phytopathology – the study of disease in plants. In the early 90’s he left science behind, a departure from his career as a research entomologist to forge a relationship with a group of experiential artists. I hadn’t consciously come across experiential art but it appears to encourage interaction with the exhibits and the gallery space, for the attendees to experiment and participate in the environment. Holler believes that galleries are “a space and time where you can try things out that you can’t try otherwise.” Carsten is a big fan of Mark Rothko and in particular the immersive aspects of Rothko’s large scale paintings.
The Hayward Gallery was certainly hands on and offered the kind of unique experiences that Holler seems to promote. Participation was positively encouraged. For example, “The Pinocchio Effect” is a piece that alters the perception of the length of your nose by stimulating your biceps and triceps, based on an experiment by James Lackner, a psychologist whose fields of research includes motion sickness.
But before you enter the exhibition, there is a decision to be made – door A or B to walk through to the gallery. Having chosen, you walk through a long duct (“Decision Corridors”) that falls and rises. It almost completely black with only the occasional holes letting in pin pricks of light. Walking cautiously and arriving with wobbly legs and crouching, you enter the gallery space to be greeted by “Flying Mushrooms”.
It’s time for another decision. Do you rotate these large spinning split agaric mushrooms yourself or watch others do it. In for a penny, in for a pound:
It was surprising how many people declined but when are you going to get to push a huge hallucinogenic fungi around again?
We moved upstairs to see “Pill Clock”.
This is a pile of pills that are dropped at 3 second intervals from the ceiling. By the end of the exhibition, 1,200,000 pills will have been deposited. You’re encouraged to take one of the pills away with you. Apparently only Carsten knows whats inside of the pills. I’ve not been brave enough to take mine yet. The significance of 3 second interval is that the artists believes that this is the period necessary to create the impression of a physical presence.
There’s plenty more.
Two particular highlights for me are “Upside Down Goggles” and “Fara Fara.”
The goggles are based on an experiment carried out in 1890’s by George Stratton who created a mirrored lens to invert his vision. After wearing them for eight days, Stratton reported some of his vision remained inverted whilst other aspects had returned to normal. The exhibit at the Hayward Gallery takes you onto a roof terrace with views of the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament. We really felt disorientated but each felt completely secure when being led by the hand by the other (with their goggles off). The exhibition as a whole took you out of your personal comfort zone, if you chose to engage with it. For someone who is naturally reticent, it could be considered a challenging environment. If it sounds like a funfair hall of mirrors, it might not be too far from the truth.
“Fara Fara” features two large screens showing a “face to face” competition in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Holler apparently fell in love with Congolese music in a club in Berlin in the 1990’s. The story of one particular competition is told on the two screens in turns. The music is loud and vibrant and the sheer energy of the Fara Fara is evident.
We take the decision to leave by the “Isomeric Slides”. These are versions of the slides that were installed in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in 1998. We were deposited on the concourse outside of the gallery laughing our heads off. None of the art is particularly moving or beautiful in the typical ways that one reacts to galleries but these aren’t the only emotions that can and should be experienced at a gallery. Levity and art should not be mutually exclusive.
The exhibition runs until 6 September. We didn’t get to go on the “Flying Machines” so we are heading back early on a weekend morning to beat the queues with our daughter who is desperate to give it all a try. It really was a fun evening and lends itself to a fantastic date night or family day out. I understand that it is a bit of a blockbuster so book early to avoid disappointment. Tickets are available here.
In the meantime, here’s the BBC’s Will Gompertz to give you a flavour of what’s on offer.