I just found this profile I wrote about the artist Carsten Höller, for the (sadly departed) Res magazine in 2006. I’ve typed it out here; hope you enjoy reading it.
ALTERED STATES: Carsten Höller
by Geeta Dayal
Res, Jan/Feb 2006
“SOME OF THEM are called mind-shakers,” Carsten Höller says mysteriously, referring to the objects in his new installation. “Instead of shaking your body, they’ll shake your mind in some way.”
The 45-year-old artist and his crew are building an amusement park inside of a giant exhibition space at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Amusement Park: Unfinished and Amusement Park: Finished, his two upcoming installations at the MASS MoCA, blow up earlier Höller works like Grönalund Tivoli Star and Roller Coaster (2005) and Carousel (1999-2000) to a massive scale. Amusement Park involves typical amusement park rides — bumper cars, a Gravitron — but the lights, music, and movement are drastically shifted in pace and timing. Höller talks excitedly about slowing the rides down to a molasses crawl. “It will be like a negative amusement park,” he says grimly, but with an edge of glee to his voice. “We are taking all the fun away.”
The more Höller talks about Amusement Park, the more it does sound like fun. He speaks with the infectious enthusiasm of a child discovering a new toy. “Everybody has a lot of memories when it comes to amusement parks,” he says. “It works on you on a very strong subconscious childhood level.”
Höller goes off on a tangent about the differences between American and European merry-go-rounds, spending ten minutes discussing the deep historical reasons why European carousels run counter-clockwise and American ones run clockwise. It’s fascinating stuff, and it’s all completely bonkers. He’s debating the inclusion of a rollercoaster in the new show, but it probably won’t happen. “But I’m still hoping for the bumper cars, Twister or Twirl-o-Wheel, a turning platform. . .”
Höller, who was born in Brussels and spent many years in Cologne before eventually settling in Stockholm, earned his chops in high-level biology. He earned a Ph.D., in fact, specializing in the study of olfactory communication between insects. After getting frustrated with how obscure his chosen field was (“You just become a super-specialist in something that ten people know about!”), he sought refuge in the art world, and became a star in the mid-to-late ’90s, with hot gallery shows in Berlin and New York. But Höller doesn’t consider himself a scientist who makes art. In fact, he’s bemused when he gets invited to speak at conferences exploring the links between art and science.
“Having been a scientist doesn’t mean you stay a scientist,” he says, very seriously. “I think I’ve become very unscientific.”
The more Höller talks, the more clear it is that he’s interested in process, and not in steady states of being. Though he no longer considers himself a scientist, his approach to experimenting is informed by his years spent toiling away in the laboratory. It’s just that now, his lab has expanded to the world, and his test subjects are his viewers.
Amusement Park is not the first time that Höller has explored altered states of perception through his art. His installation Upside Down Mushroom Room is currently flipping out crowds at the Ecstasy: In and About Altered States exhibit exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “It’s very simple,” he explains. “It’s just a kind of corridor you go through, and it gets dark in the middle. You get light coming from the other side, and it’s just an upside-down mushroom room.”
“Just” an upside-down mushroom room?
“Well, you have these very realistic mushrooms, fly agarics, above you and also next to you, because they come down to the level of your head — and they turn!” He launches into a heavy discussion about mushrooms; R. Gordon Wasson’s classic study on the history of psychedelic mushrooms is one of his favorite books.
Höller’s works share a fascination with psychology and the mind, but not in any formalized way. His many experiments, like Solandra Greenhouse (2004) — in which he filled a greenhouse with Solandra maxima vines, which apparently contain pheromones with the ability to arouse amorous feelings — and Sanitorium (1999), play on themes from psychiatry and neuroscience, but always very obliquely. They’re not scientific experiments in the traditional sense of the word.
Höller doesn’t know where his “experiments” will lead, and that’s part of what keeps him interested. He isn’t deliberately engineering an installation to achieve an end result; like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel, there are any number of possible end results, and the viewer, not the artist, is the focus. Earlier works like Three-Fold Delayed Infrared Room (2001), which applied delay and ghostly infrared effects to onlookers and displayed the results on three large panels, literally placed the viewer front and center. If there’s a common thread that runs through all of Höller’s bizarre mixed-media projects over the years, it’s his deeply personal interest in people, and how they perceive the world.
“I don’t believe the way we experience our lives is the only way,” Höller says. “I think it’s a way we learn how to do, but I’m interested in opening that up again. It’s time to learn ways to get out of our cultural heritage, out of our very strong way of looking at things, our concept of the world, and how we deal with these tricky matters. I think it’s time to open up again.”