Walking into The Hayward Gallery’s exhibition of Carsten Höller’s retrospective show, ‘Decision’, you are immediately confronted by a fork in the road: Door A or Door B. In the first of many decisions the viewer is required to undertake, Höller lures you into the rabbit hole, a dark metal corridor, destination unknown. As you clamber your way through the darkness, the steely wall acting as your only guide and comfort, you hear shrieks of delight and terror reverberate through the empty corridors.
Suddenly, there is a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel and you tumble out into Höller’s first sculpture, ‘Flying Mushrooms’, an enormous revolving mushroom mobile. Feeling disorientated and uncertain, it’s hard not to feel like you have fallen down the rabbit hole and arrived in Wonderland.
Höller, an ex-scientist, is a renowned master of experiential and experimental art, that forces the viewer to participate and interact. Navigating your way through the exhibition, you are faced with constant choices designed to challenge your perception and expectation of reality and experience. As you “complete” each task and engage with each artwork, there is an eerie sensation that we, not the art, are the subjects of Höller’s science experiment.
‘The Pill Clock’ is a time piece that releases a red and white pill every three seconds, resulting in a growing mass – a manifestation of the passing of time. In a nod to ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Höller invites the participant to swallow the pill, with the use of the nearby water fountain, in order to progress through to Wonderland. The ingredients are simply listed as “placebo”. Höller lulls the participant into a state of suspended caution and cynicism, encouraging risk-taking to facilitate altered perceptions. In no other circumstance would one ingest a strange pill off the floor.
Further on, we find ‘The Forests’, a 3D headset that shows a dual-screen film of a forest. Lined up like Daft Punk cyborgs, the viewer watches as the film splits in two, each eye shown a different scene. The eyes strain as you attempt to reconcile the two competing images. This tension draws upon notions of altered perceptions of reality and experience, leaving the viewer in a fuzzy dreamlike state.
As you venture upstairs, you exit the science laboratory and enter the fun park, full of rides, gags and tricks. Roll up, the patented ‘Upside Down Goggles’ which, as the name suggests, inverts your vision, the spinning trapeze ‘Two Flying Machines’ and giant dice – ‘Dice (White Body, Black Dots)’ – among others. It is Höller’s take on the traditional Hall of Mirrors promising physical discombobulation and a shifting awareness of matter and space.
Finally, what fun park would be complete without a giant slide? The gilded serpentine slides fixed to the brutalist walls of the Hayward Gallery, presents the participant with their final decision on how to leave the exhibition – slide A or slide B. The participant is then whooshed back to reality and spat out onto the pavement of the Hayward Gallery in a short, sharp final curtain on the Höller fun fair.
Suffice to say, the more participation (and patience, as the lines are long and the selfies are endless) the viewer exhibits, the more they will take away from this interactive exhibition. Whilst some critics may suggest that Höller’s work is infantilising gimmickry, it certainly encourages the age old debate of whether this is in fact, “art”. This participant is left undecided.