Carsten Höller Likens Museums To Magic Mushrooms

The German-Belgian artist's new exhibition, "Sunday," delves into all forms of consciousness-altering.

by Brian Boucher
May 2 2019, 3:36pm

Can art help you to learn about yourself?

This is the ambitious question set forth by German-Belgian artist Carsten Höller, who recently opened “Sunday,” a rollicking exhibition at the Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum in Mexico City. The artist is perhaps best known for aiming to instill joy in the viewer with his giant slides-as-artworks (it’s impossible not to smile when descending a slide, he says), and to expand their consciousness through sensory-deprivation tanks.

Höller creates extreme experiences to startle us into observing ourselves in the act of experiencing them. “Nobody I’ve met is aware of what sort of person they are,” the artist once told the Irish Times. We’re challenged to see ourselves perhaps as a scientist might. In fact, Höller has a doctorate in biology, having written a thesis on the small insect called the aphid. His most speculative thinking — and, in his view, his best — was rejected by his evaluators. Despite having no art education, he took that experimental approach into the art gallery instead, scoring solo exhibitions at venues like New York’s New Museum and Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, as well as a spot in the 2003 and 2009 Venice Biennials and the 2008 São Paulo Biennial.

If you want to understand this show, Höller said on a recent sunny day on the museum’s porch, you should know a little about magic mushrooms. Beckoning to the city from the roof of the museum, which sits inside a sprawling municipal park, is a sculpture of a psychedelic mushroom (a hybrid of three varieties, actually). Höller wants to alter your consciousness — and not just for fun.

Roof sculpture, photo by Peter Björk.

As the people of the region traditionally used these plants in shamanistic practice, he said while standing in view of the hybrid ‘shroom, they allowed the users to experience the world in a different way, thereby gaining some distance from themselves. This was nothing less than “the birth of culture,” the artist said, before likening the psychedelic to the institution we were standing in front of, since both are designed to offer a new vantage point: “The museum is an attempt to curate difference from the world outside.”

But the show’s main attraction—and arguably its trademark work—is Decision Tubes (2019), a set of open-air tunnels made of woven black rope strung through a series of metal hoops, suspended in the air in the museum’s soaring atrium. Visitors can follow various paths, either climbing to the roof to commune with the mushroom or gaining access into various museum galleries.

Decision Tubes, photo by Peter Björk.

When a reporter asked Höller what he was doing distinctively in this, his first major exhibition in Mexico, he said he partly aimed to please the museum. He was told that the high, light-filled atrium tends to make the award-winning 1981 building, the design of architects Abraham Zabludovsky and Teodoro González de León, the center of attention. “The museum asked me to do a show that would be about the art,” he said, “and not the building.”

I was there the moment the doors opened, ready to mount the tubes, wearing sneakers for traction. The moment you enter, you ascend, leaving the atrium floor far below. What new perspective did I gain on myself when climbing through Decision Tubes? I learned the same thing I learned when I rode a rollercoaster at Coney Island: I generally don’t like scary experiences. They’re too scary.

Looking down at the floor from several yards high in the air, the polyester fabric all too yielding under my feet, it was easy to imagine plummeting to the floor—even after seeing others confidently stride through them rather than gripping the sides with white knuckles, as I did, and even despite the abundance of thick metal cables securing them to walls, ceiling, and floor.

Viewers without the courage to climb the tubes—or turned off by long lines to experience them—enter the show via Six Sliding Doors (2019) a series of pairs of mirrored panels equipped with motion sensors; if you proceed through at the doors’ center, you’ll see your own reflection, which then splits open, only to be greeted by your own reflection again in the next set of doors—successively revealing you to yourself, as it were, as if peeling layers away from an onion.

The galleries beyond are jam-packed, as if the artist aimed to err on the side of density to draw the viewer’s attention away from that distinctive architecture. There’s a large wall lined with seizure-inducing flashing lights ( Light Wall, 2000/2017), accompanied by a vitrine filled with gold-plated mushroom sculptures with their own flashing lights, 7.8 Hz (Vitrine With Golden Fly Agaric Mushrooms), 2019.

Photo by Peter Björk.

A room-size sculpture, Swinging Spiral (2010/2019), places you in a room that gently rocks back and forth, very effectively inducing you to lean almost imperceptibly to and fro as it sways. A number of Dot Paintings (2018) bear coded messages: fields of dots plot out various points on photos of famous kisses (one, fittingly enough, of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera). Two innocuous-looking benches include atomizers that spray scents modeled on the artist’s parents ( Smell of My Father and Smell of My Mother respectively, both 2017).

Humankind has long looked to dreams for the kind of insights Höller aims to induce, and he impressively looks to manipulate even that most intimate experience. Two beds occupy a large gallery, equipped with motors and motion sensors; they move as the sleeper dreams, and the ink pens on their bases draw on the floor, as if loading a palette with paint.

Two Moving Beds (Grey), 2015, is coupled with Insensatus Vol. 1 Fig. 1 (2014), a toothpaste custom-designed by the artist to enhance your dreams; he promises that the three varieties will put you in a state corresponding to the male (with ingredients like licorice and the flowering plant calea zacatechichi, in some places a controlled substance), the female (including frankincense and Siberian ginseng), and the infantile (with chamomile and Eastern Himalayan jasmine). Alas, bookings didn’t open until after my stay in Mexico.

Photo by Peter Björk.

Höller said during a walk through “Sunday” that his artworks don’t “contain” the art experience, but are rather reliant on our immersion in them, and, moreover, our taking part in them along with others. If Duchamp believed that art is dependent on the viewer’s involvement to be complete, Höller’s relies on a triangle consisting of you, the artwork, and two or more viewers. So it only made sense for a reporter to get some input from the locals, ten thousand of whom streamed into the galleries on opening weekend. Like any entertaining museum show, it predictably serves as a studio for amateur Instagram photo shoots. “¡Que bonita!” exclaimed one young woman to a friend who got a shot of her doing the cliché “jumping for joy” in front of the Decision Tubes.

Carolina Cosgalla, a graphic designer, and her date, Ricardo Molina, an engineer, tried to shoot selfies while wearing the deeply disorienting Upside-Down Goggles (1994-ongoing), which invert your view of the world. On hearing about the show, Molina was skeptical, telling Cosgalla that if she wanted to experience something impressive and high-tech, she should just come to the shipyard where he works.

But they both seemed sold on the show. “It’s different,” she said, gesturing toward the goggles she had just taken off. Asked to put her finger on what exactly makes the goggles art, she said, “Artists try to reach your emotion. I feel something exciting. I feel a bump in my chest.”

Two young students had just had a whiff of Love Drug (PEA), 1993/2001, contained in a small bottle on a shelf near the roaming beds. The contents, an organic compound known as phenethylamine that’s found in many foods, have a sharp, fishy odor and can serve as an empathogen, enhancing your affection for the people around you.

Photo by Peter Björk.

“It’s disgusting!” said Anna Carolina Méndez of the smell. But when the compound’s effect was explained to her, she was struck with an inspiration. Turning to her friend, Lili Rojas, she said, “I’m going to give it to my crush!”

“Sunday” is on view at the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, through June 30.

carsten höller
mexico city