If you’ve visited Southbank of late, you will have noticed a rather odd looking metallic slide protruding out from the Hayward Gallery. This is the work of none other than Belgian artist Carsten Höller (we are on quite the Belgian hype, aren’t we?).
The exhibition it belongs to is entitled ‘Decision’ and it is running until the 6th September 2015. The idea behind the exhibition is that each person makes a series of decisions throughout the course of the exhibition that crafts their experience to make it completely individual to them. The exhibition is aimed at making its visitors feel unstable and unaware as to what to expect next. It is a representation of the unpredictability of life, so to speak.
I dropped into the exhibition last week to see what it was all about and had mixed impressions. On the one hand, I was intrigued and delighted at the prospect of becoming part of the art. My inner child took over and I wanted to do everything and play with the artwork. Furthermore, some of the installations were incredibly hard-hitting and thought provoking, and the unsettling feelings that I had walking around it are unlike anything I have felt before in an art exhibition. On the other hand, half of me was slightly perplexed and underwhelmed with certain aspects of the exhibition.
Entry to the exhibition cost £10 for a concessions ticket, regular tickets were priced at £15, so being a poor student, this seemed quite a stretch for an art exhibition. However, I paid my due and entered the exhibition. The first ‘decision’ that visitors were required to make was which set of doors (A or B) they would enter the exhibition through. Myself and my friend chose entrance A, and were confronted with a pitch black steel maze of corridors that we were required to walk down to get into the exhibition. Therefore, upon our entrance to the exhibition we were already a bit rattled and uncertain as to what to expect next. In this way, the exhibition was incredibly effective at taking visitors out of their comfort zones and throwing them into the art.
The exhibition itself was extremely surreal. Full of large rooms with roaming beds, rotating mushrooms, mirrors, a giant die and a huge pile of red and white pills which dropped from the ceiling every three seconds. It felt vaguely like a more clinical, modern adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, with all the glorious feelings of being on acid enhancing the experience. Höller certainly succeeded in his attempt to “bring about ‘moments of not knowing'”, but as with so many modern interactive art exhibitions, there needs to be a balance between having ‘moments of not knowing’ and being completely clueless as to the purpose of the art itself.
There were several moments throughout the exhibition where I felt as though I was roaming around a miniature, low budget indoor theme park. One particularly underwhelming and, I thought, pretty pointless, aspect of the exhibition was ‘The Forests’. ‘The Forests’ (pictured above) was a section of the exhibition where you put on a creepy looking set of goggles and stared expectantly at a film of a forest in the winter time for a good five minutes waiting for something interesting and artistic to happen, but being decidedly disappointed and underwhelmed.
Another thing which ruined the atmosphere for me was the sheer amount of children running around and using the exhibition as a playground. Being advertised an ‘interactive’ exhibition no doubt had a great deal to do with this. ‘Interactive’ says “family friendly”, it says “entertain the kids”, and as such, there were thousands of small humans gallivanting all around what could have been an extremely haunting and disturbing exhibition.
The giant die was transformed into a jungle gym for little tykes and the majority of the ‘interactive’ moments such as the flying machine, ‘The Forests’ and upside down goggles were congested with queues of children and parents, taking away from the artistic feeling and adding to the air of it being a crappy theme park.
This being said, this did not completely ruin the exhibition for me. Yes, it took away from the atmosphere, but I still found numerous elements of the display extremely affecting and poignant.
The pile of pills that lay growing on the floor near the beginning of the exhibit was a very strong point of the exhibition and one of my favourite parts. Walking into the room with the pills was chilling and making the decision to take one and swallow it with the water from the water fountain provided was even more unsettling. Overcoming the fear of the unknown and taking one of those pills was definitely the most memorable part for me.
Another part of the exhibition that I particularly enjoyed was the upside down glasses. These were great fun and made the feeling of uncertainty and instability that the exhibition was trying to capture even more tangible. However, most poignant and perplexing was the roaming beds. Designed to actually accommodate sleepers throughout the nights of the exhibition, these beds move as the inhabitants dream and highlight further the uncertainty as the dreamers do not know where in the exhibition they will wake up. We spent a great length of time examining these beds slowly creeping around the space, and I only wish I could have been one of those who got to spend the night in one of them!
Overall, I loved the way in which you could become part of the art, particularly in the room of mirrors which was intended to make the visitors look at other people in the exhibition as part of it. The atmosphere was disconcerting throughout the whole exhibition and not knowing what to expect was certainly something refreshing and new in a world where so much of our lives is meticulously planned and scheduled. It was somewhat fulfilling to get away from that.
However, with news of another monstrous slide, compliments of Carsten Höller, to be installed as a conversion of the Olympic Tower next spring, and the recent hype surrounding Banksy’s Dismaland park in Weston Super Mare, it seems that these ‘interactive’, theme-park reminiscent installations are getting a little bit carried away with themselves. It seems that our cyber generation can no longer be entertained by simple art works on the walls of the Tate, but must be thrust into a different world to appreciate artwork.
Whilst installations and interactive art work can be effective, I feel as though there is a very real danger of these works becoming meaningless. There is an ever growing threat of us prescribing meaning to something that is merely a badly executed theme park, and I’m not sure I like where the world of modern art installations is going. However, I do intend to visit Banksy’s Dismaland and cannot pretend to have hated the Carsten Höller exhibition. I just hope that this new movement can be contained and kept purposeful for the sake of art. For art is not art if it does not have something to say.