It’s 11 in the morning and visitors to Carsten Höller’s new exhibition, “Experience,” are emerging one by one down the shoot of a 102-foot-long slide. The structure itself, which bores through two concrete floors of the museum, looks like nothing so much as the pneumatic mailing ducts from the movie Brazil, long snakes of stainless-steel segments. The sliders’ feet are wrapped in canvas blankets, their arms are crossed over their chests. They board on the fourth floor; you can see them shoot by on the third floor through the slide’s transparent upper shell. The expressions on their faces are ecstatic. They land with whoops and thuds on a mattress on the second floor.
This exhibition features every possible hazard. It is slippery when wet. It may trigger photosensitive epilepsy. It is nothing if not engaging, yet it is somehow ominous. Suspended from the ceiling of the gallery above the long line of people waiting to use the giant slide are live canaries in outsize steel birdcages (Singing Canaries Mobile, 2009). Evoking the canary in the coal mine, the birds suggest that we, the viewers, are test subjects of sorts.
Other sculpture names don’t alleviate that suspicion. Giant Psycho Tank (1999/2000) encourages viewers to change out of their street clothes, shower and float naked or in swimwear in saline water heated to body temperature. Cotton robes and a viewing window allow for both post-tank modesty and in-tank voyeurism. While The Observer was there an international television crew filmed as the sole swimmer floated. A man in a Pink Floyd T-shirt walked by wearing Mr. Höller’s Upside-Down Goggles (2009/11), which turn ordinary vision upside down, and waved and tittered cheerfully at the cameras.
Since the curator Nicolas Bourriaud declared in the 1990s that “art is an activity consisting in producing relationships with the world,” exhibitions about encounters, hands-on events and spectator participation, or as this show is entitled, “Experience,” have abounded in museums, biennials and galleries. The work featured is often called “relational aesthetics,” a term of Mr. Bourriaud’s invention.
The Belgian-born Mr. Höller has been known for two decades for his giant psilocybin-mushroom sculptures, funhouse slides and other kinds of interactive sculptures that walk a knowing line between the scientific and the psychedelic. With pieces like Pill Clock (2001) on display, its thousands of white gelatin capsules falling from the museum ceiling and available to swallow, the “Experience” of Mr. Höller’s title might be understood in two ways: it might refer to bodily knowledge through the practice of relational aesthetics, or it might take Jimi Hendrix’s connotation. Perhaps both.
One thing interactive sculptures like Mirror Carousel (2005), a giant, functioning carousel, Untitled (Slide), Giant Psycho Tank and Upside-Down Goggles have in common is the waiver required to engage with them. As if they were Coney Island rides, you don a wristband once you have signed a paper that states that you are of legal age, not subject to certain health risks, and “understand that the exhibition and the artworks … are artistic activities that can be viewed and also physically interacted with,” yet may be hazardous; in the inimitable legalese of the City of New York, you sign that you “accept the exhibition ‘as is.’”
This requirement to “accept the exhibition ‘as is’” is the most interesting fantasy of “Experience.” We are not being asked to see and judge, to talk about beauty, or what we like or don’t like. We are being asked to let go of such aesthetic criteria and replace them with participation.
In fact, there is little to see in “Experience” besides the spectators themselves. Although the show features nearly three dozen works, it feels sparse. The walls are almost entirely bare. Some pieces are very minor interventions like a phone on the wall that occasionally rings to bring the voice of someone talking about money, love or art into the museum (What Is Love, Art, Money? 2011). A few delicate glass sculptures like Atomium Slide House (2003) and High Rise Sculpture (2006) look like afterthoughts, architecture built of laboratory titration material. For the most part this work avoids the decorative and visually pleasurable in favor of the functional and the physical encounter.
Six new sculptures on the second floor are one exception. These are giant, polyurethane cousins of a toy store’s cast-rubber animals, including a reindeer, a rhinoceros, a crocodile and a hippo, done in bright pink, yellow, green and orange. They are infinitely less absorbing than the participatory work, and their portion of the exhibition space—about half the second floor—feels like a dead zone despite the vivid colors employed.
Organized by Massimiliano Gioni, with Gary Carrion-Murayari and Jenny Moore, “Experience” is the first of two New York exhibitions that feature important, now midcareer, European figures whose humorous sculpture and interactive work might be seen as related (the second exhibition, by Maurizio Cattelan, opens at the Guggenheim later this week). The relational-aesthetics artist, an itinerant art teacher/curator persona, is often without a studio. Both Mr. Höller and Mr. Cattelan can be seen in the same context as French artists Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, and New Yorkers Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick.
If relational aesthetics has a patron saint in the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, with his political and participatory gestures, Mr. Höller is its nerdy uncle (he holds a doctorate in agricultural entomology), ready with the drug references but ultimately a little removed, a little sinister, a little crowd-pleasing without being able to resist sly meta-commentary, as he performs his magic tricks.
Yet if Mr. Höller’s works claim to transform the passive viewer into the active participant, the cerebral and visual into the bodily, this dichotomy is false. You sign away your privacy when you sign these forms. The exhibition makes the viewer into another kind of object to be observed. The spectator becomes a spectacle.
As a museum- and gallery-goer, The Observer has participated in relational aesthetics. We have eaten the Thai soup, tasted the triangles of candy, taken the posters, danced on the floors, slept in the galleries, read the books in the book-reading-rooms and watched the films in the film-watching rooms.
Yet if the traditional work of art addresses the viewer as a thinking, aesthetically critical being, much of relational aesthetics, including this show, addresses the spectator in a more familiar mode: that of the consumer. Even if you aren’t paying anything beyond the price of museum admission, the exhibition encourages you to consume the sculptures as “rides,” to wait in line to go again and again, to accept the experience “as is.” There is no question that Mr. Höller does what he does well. Not to sound like a spoilsport, but there is value to reflection, to consideration rather than participation, and this is what is lost here. “Experience” turns the museum into a funhouse, at a cost. What we lose is the critical faculty, which, in a way, brings us full circle: Mr. Höller’s is an exceptionally fun exhibition to visit, and a particularly difficult one to review.