Is It Art, Science or a Test of People?

Written on October 31, 2011 by Banafsheh Farhangmehr in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Over the past several years art museums have begun to place much more emphasis on a concept they call the “visitor experience.” Few, though, have attempted to define that concept quite as broadly — or as bodily — as the New Museum, which is mounting a career survey of the Belgian-born artist Carsten Höller that opens on Wednesday.

A (greatly abridged) menu of the experiences available to viewers — after they sign a legal waiver and abandon all hope of conventional museumgoing decorum — would read something like this:

Walk around while seeing the world upside down and backward. Hurtle two stories toward the earth in a metal and plastic tube as others watch and, almost certainly, laugh. Ingest an unidentified white pill or a fistful if you choose. Inhale an amphetaminelike substance said to induce amorous feelings. Feel your nose grow. Feel the walls shift around you. Feel yourself slam face first into a tree at high speed. Or, if you really want to prove your dedication to art, take off all your clothes and lie with friends or strangers in a modified sensory deprivation tank in heavily salinized water, heated to the temperature of human skin.

Mr. Höller’s works also set out to induce a general kind of madness: a troubling, anti-Enlightenment awareness that despite the certainties won by science over the past three or four hundred years, human beings still know relatively little about the world around them and have no good reason even to trust their senses. While such a state may seem disturbing, Mr. Höller views it instead as “truly productive,” an existential means of throwing off the bonds of determinism and treating human experience, if only for a little while, as a kind of artwork to be shaped and played with.

“What I’m doing is certainly not science, but maybe it’s not art, either; it’s something in between, a third thing,” said Mr. Höller, who was raised by German parents in Brussels and has lived and worked for the past several years in Stockholm.

One of his pieces, called “The Pinocchio Effect,” tricks the mind into believing that the nose is growing: you hold your nose with your fingers and place a small vibrating device on one of your upper arms. Another piece, using a small video screen in front of each eye, mimics the effect of moving through a forest, except that at one point, the eyes go in different directions, around a tree.

Continue reading in The New York Times


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