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Arts & Culture

The Varieties of “Experience”

November 9, 2011 | by

Mirror Carousel, 2005. Installation view, "Experience," New Museum. Photo © Benoit Pailley.

At this time of year, the Bowery seems colder and brighter than other streets nearby, maybe because it’s several lanes wide and flanked by buildings no more than four or five stories tall. To me, it’s also a resonant place, and has been since I moved to New York. Along the Bowery, there are traces of a cultural history I tell myself I’m a part of (artists and musicians making prescient, eerie, underground things) as well as a cultural history that, let’s be honest, I’m actually a part of (Chinese immigrants starting businesses to meet market demand). Mark Rothko, Eva Hesse, and William S. Burroughs lived or worked along the Bowery. CBGB’s was there. It has also been the site of lighting outlets and restaurant-supply stores with exactly the sort of aspirational, front-of-the-phonebook names that my parents, with their limited English, would choose: AA International Trading Inc. A-1 Restaurant Equipment. A-Plus Restaurant Equipment.

Maybe it’s because the rest of the Bowery seems so familiar that I found “Experience,” Carsten Höller’s solo show at the New Museum, so disorienting. Of course, as the Belgian-born artist recently told a colleague at Artforum.com, “My entire show is set up to make you [go] mad.” Originally trained as an expert in aphids, the forty-nine-year-old Höller only began making art in the 1980s, and soon became known for his huge, interactive pieces: giant, twisting, multi-story slides; or hotel rooms, installed within museums, that can be rented from night to night. His latest show is a retrospective of sorts, and features, among other work, a three-story slide, a giant, mirrored carousel, and a sensory deprivation tank.

A sense of delirium had already begun to set in as I stood among the bottleneck of visitors in the lobby, where we were stopped and presented with waivers to sign. After acknowledging that I didn’t have “allergies to Epsom salts,”or “photosensitive epilepsy,” or “motion sickness, acrophobia (fear of heights), vertigo (dizziness), or claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces),” I made my way to the fourth floor, where the rabbit-hole-like entrance to Höller’s slide awaited.

The chute is 102 feet long, and the ride lasts approximately four seconds. Which meant that, on it, my speed was about 17 miles per hour, though it all seemed much, much faster. The slide corkscrewed in a clockwise direction but then suddenly veered my body counterclockwise—milliseconds after a wall of flashing fluorescent bulbs filled my field of vision, and milliseconds before I was deposited in the middle of the second floor, right by the feet of a museum guard, who raised his eyebrows.

“Elegant,” he said, of my descent.

There are tamer pieces, like the Pill Clock: Every few seconds, a gelatin capsule filled with cream-yellow powder drops from a small hole in the ceiling. A water cooler and a stack of cups have been set up nearby, so that people can choose to swallow the pellets, which are placebos (or so promises an attendant guard). On the second floor is a row of small chambers, each containing various machines and flasks that allow visitors to perform experiments on themselves. One of these rooms contains a vial of phenylethylamine, purportedly the neurotransmitter that floods the brain when people fall madly in love. A sign on the wall urges those who are adversely affected by strong odors to refrain from uncorking the container and inhaling. (I took a whiff and couldn’t smell anything. This may be related to why I am single.)

Höller’s work is often mentioned under the rubric of “relational aesthetics,” that polarizing term coined by critic Nicholas Bourriaud to describe art based on social interactions between audience members. But the most striking experiences in Höller’s “Experience” are the lonely ones—whether plummeting down a slide, or lying in a structure shaped like an MRI, with aquarium of fish around your head. One of the show’s few social hubs is the sensory deprivation tank: a cream-colored hut on stilts that contains a shallow pool of body-temperature water, in which visitors who have stripped naked (or who have come prepared with bathing gear) can float, uncomfortably close to one another.

As of last week, the pool also became a solitary experience. An irked Department of Health has notified the New Museum that it would need a permit before continuing to allow naked strangers to submerge themselves in shared pools of water. I was one of the lucky few, as some might see it, who happened to make it there before the change in policy—luckier still because I had shown up ready with a swimsuit. The water turned out to be colder than I’d expected, the current stronger.

But in the end, it was the women’s restroom—where else?—that became the site of my conversations with strangers.

“Oh whoa did you go in the tank?” a girl asked me. “Is it worth doing?” She and her friend watched me shake Epsom salt from my belongings. I tried to describe the experience and resorted to terms like “weird,” “cold,” and “gross.”

“But you guys should totally totally try it,” I added.

Was it worth doing? I still don’t know. They looked awfully dry and comfortable. Whereas I left the museum with wet hair, and the Bowery seemed even colder than before.

Experience” will be on view until January 15 at the New Museum in New York.

Dawn Chan is a writer living in New York and associate editor at Artforum.com.

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