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Carsten Holler: Decision

12 June 2015 | Imogen Greenberg

The Hayward Gallery is set to close this September to undergo a two-year renovation. Its final exhibition before then is a major survey of the work of Carsten Holler, an artist whose work is always full of surprises.

 

Carsten Holler’s Decision lives up to its title from the start. Visitors are asked to choose one of two entrances. From there, they are guided in to a series of pitch black metal tunnels, that twist and turn, until they are thrown out in to the exhibition, disorientated. It is an anxious deprivation of senses, clutching to the walls as a guide, as people fall over each other, and nervous laughs and crashes break the tension.

Carsten Holler is known for creating art that immerses visitors in a unique way, drawing them in to his strange world. Ralph Rugoff, the curator, says ‘he has never conformed to anyone’s idea of what art should be... continuously and adventurously expanding the experiences that art offers us’.

The exhibition is, as promised, an exploration of decision-making. But it also explores the senses, and how we perceive the world in which we make our decisions. It intends to drive visitors to embrace a new state of mind, open to new possibilities and what Holler calls ‘active uncertainty’. Some of the other themes that the exhibition explores, of twinned objects and people, of disorientated perception, dreams and drug-induced stupors, would not be out of place in a Shakespearean comedy. 

Part of the joy of the exhibition is that it is as much about watching other visitors making their decisions. The best example of this is Pill Clock, a timepiece that drops a single red-and-white capsule every three seconds on to the gallery floor. There is already a large pile of pills waiting. Everyone stands in a loose circle around it, looking for someone to make the first move. It is a waiting game, until someone breaks the stalemate. Once the first person goes, suddenly we’re all queuing at the water fountain, desperate to take this pill.

The decision is not just about whether or not to take the pill, which it is fairly safe to assume will have no effect. It is also about what that decision says about you, in a room full of others making the same decision. It is the doubt and the second-guessing in the decision-making process that Holler is so good at evoking.

One of the most disorientating moments of the exhibition is Upside Down Goggles. Audiences are invited to put on goggles on the roof of the Hayward Gallery. A mirror inverts your vision so everything is upside down. Walking leaves you lost in the space. Grown adults toddle around the roof terrace, confused and shaky like children. The London Eye and Big Ben hang suspended upside down, the clouds floating below them at the bottom of your vision. People seem to appear from nowhere. It will be even more confusing when the final piece is put in place: the Hayward Gallery sign inverted, so it appears the right way up only through the goggles.

For those brave enough, the most complete illusion is The Flying Machines on the other roof terrace. Strapped in to a harness and attached to a turning machine, participants are given the unnerving and terrifying sensation that they’re flying over the traffic on Waterloo Bridge.

Inevitably, people are asking questions about the relationship between art and entertainment. Does this take art so far in to the realms of the funfair, to not be considered art at all? Or should art take itself less seriously? Holler embraces the debate with a characteristic ‘yes and no’ answer. Art should be taken very seriously. But entertainment is a force in our lives we should consider, and there are different types of entertainment. He objects that entertainment should be given away to the entertainment industry: ‘It’s been taken over.’

Rugoff agrees that whilst it is entertaining, it’s also thoughtful as ‘every piece has a wonderful, mischievous playfulness to it. It is trying to pull the rug out from under the ways we normally see the world.’

The culmination of Decision is an exit from the gallery via Holler’s trademark slides, custom built on to the side of the Hayward. I ascend the twisting metal staircase and climb through the roof of the Hayward where the slides start. The roof of the slide is transparent, and as the Southbank Centre and the Thames whirl by in a last disorientating turn, I agree with them. It doesn’t really matter how you want to categorise it, art or entertainment, because it works. The world does look a little bit different through Holler’s eyes.

Carsten Holler: Decision is at the Hayward Gallery from 10th June to 6th September. Please see their website to book tickets.
 

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