This summer at NGV International, in the former open-air sculpture court that is now Federation Court, audiences are invited to swing on an audacious new sculpture by German contemporary artist Carsten Höller. That the work is spectacular will be fairly obvious upon first viewing; this seven-metre high and nearly five-metre wide carousel, with highly reflective polished golden surfaces, is a wonder of engineering and finish. Golden Mirror Carousel, 2014, incorporates twenty-four suspended seats which revolve in the opposite direction to the carousel’s centre column, and is ringed with fairground lights. The hallucinatory, destabilising effect created by the movement and reflections is part of the ‘audacious’ approach Höller has taken with this work; a term that means both to take bold risks and to lack respect. The artist has long sought to test his audience and their perceptual thresholds, but this work also risks confounding its participants and actively critiquing the museum institution.

Golden Mirror Carousel appears to be a traditional fairground ride, except for one striking aspect: its speed of revolution. Turning approximately one cycle per five minutes, the work confounds the excess of velocity expected today from machines of entertainment. Our daily experience of speed – of vehicles, machines and even technological tasks – is faster and faster, and entertainment in the fairground context has evolved with this normalisation of speed, becoming ever more immersive and ‘on the edge’. Actively confounding this central aspect challenges us to submit to a slower pace and get lost in a movement of contemplation.

Many recent activities at the NGV reflect an increased interest, by artists and audiences, in art practices that might be considered participatory, interactive or relational, perhaps most notably as part of the recent Melbourne Now exhibition. Melbourne Now projects exhibiting these qualities were discussed in the essay ‘Playtime’, in the exhibition’s limited-edition publication, by Isobel Crombie, Assistant Director, Curatorial and Collection Management, NGV, which identified ‘play’ as a theme central to the works and, via philosopher Emmanuel Kant, central in fact to the creative act.

Three such interactive and participatory works will be on display on Level 3 at NGV International from 24 November 2014 to 19 April 2015. The island bird, 2012, by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, is a series of suspended walkways, created from high-key colour textiles connected using crochet techniques, leading to a round room which audiences are invited to enter and relax within. Another work by a Brazilian artist, Rivane Neuenschwander’s Watchword, 2012, invites audiences to select different clothing labels that feature words adapted from handmade protest banners and slogans found on the internet and pin them to an abstracted map of the world, or to their own clothing. Neuenschwander intends that the choice of words, and how they are re-formed and re-enter the world, will manifest the audience’s values and hopes. Please empty your pockets, 2010, by Mexican artist Rafael Lozano Hemmer, is an interactive installation that mimics the kind of X-ray machines used in airports and other security checkpoints. In this work audience members are invited to place an object on a conveyor belt, which is scanned as it passes through the device.

In both Neuenschwander’s and Hemmer’s works the sense of play is augmented by an invitation to consider wider contemporary moral and geopolitical issues in nuanced and poetic ways. It is worth pointing out that, concomitant with an increase in opportunities for audience members to become active participants in contemporary art, rather than remain as passive viewers, there has been the riposte that criticality can be compromised by work that privileges involvement over contemplation. What sets Höller’s Golden Mirror Carousel apart from these three works is the artist’s resistance to fulfil the desire for ‘play’, and his ongoing investigation of vision, its limitations and its culturally contestable significance; and thus of the art institution more broadly, which has traditionally privileged the visible over the experiential.1 Galleries and museums have traditionally been spaces of Cartesian philosophy where the concrete, the corporeal and the visible have been privileged. This is despite the fact that the rise of these institutions in the seventeenth century, and then their mass proliferation in the late twentieth century, was concurrent with philosophy’s focus on ontology, metaphysics and immanence. Höller’s approach throughout his career has been to invite the art institution to question this Cartesian basis, through supporting and presenting a range of projects that critique assumed notions of visuality and call for a reassessment of the value of the experiential within these contexts.

A project that describes Höller’s approach in concise terms is his Upside-down goggles, 1994–2001, in which the viewer wears a pair of goggles that flips the image of the world, making it appear upside-down. The lenses of the eye itself perform this flip as a matter of course, while our brains account for it and ‘correct’ it. Thus it can be argued that visual perception itself is, in fact, a concoction, a lie, and yet wearing the goggles is a profoundly disorientating (and potentially nauseating) experience. As with many of his projects, Upside-down goggles – and by extension Golden Mirror Carousel – is undertaken as a sort of para-scientific experiment that is not designed to verify the mechanics of sight, but rather to frame a question about the philosophy of vision.2 As Höller himself writes in an artist statement for an earlier project: ‘The experiment will thus be a very unscientific one, as objectivity is not the aim. It will rather be a unique opportunity to experience with others the possibility of getting away from what you usually are’ (Carsten Höller, ‘The Baudouin/Boudewijn Experiment: A Deliberate, Non-Fatalistic Large Scale Group Experiment in Deviation, 2000’, in Clare Bishop [ed.], Participation, Whitechapel, London & The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006, p. 145). As William S. Smith writes, ‘Höller’s work reasserts the primacy of embodied vision while denying – at times forcibly – this separation of the optic from the haptic’.3 William S. Smith, ‘Optics’, in Carsten Höller: Experience, Skira Rizzoli Publications & New Museum, New York, p. 196.

Another confounding aspect of Golden Mirror Carousel is that the experience of riding on the work is a strangely solitary one. While the suspended chairs, evenly spread, seem to invite up to twenty-four simultaneous participants, Höller has engineered its rotation to stop if more than a third of the available seats are occupied, or if too many people are seated together. The piece is further refined through its physical design to invite reflection, perhaps even melancholia; evoking an empty, failing ride at an ill-attended funfair, a frozen nostalgic moment.4 ‘According to the first thesis [of Henri Bergson’s philosophy of time] movement is distinct from the space covered. Space covered is past, movement is present, the act of covering’ (Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986, p. 1). Some quiet time spent on the slowly moving carousel might even invite a reflection on the nature of time itself, and our experience of it: time passes while we are on it, acutely aware of our presentness. The carousel thus undermines any proposed dynamic of the interactive, entertaining gallery through its languid temporality and solitary experience, qualities at odds with the common concerns of the modern museum and its embrace of participation and interaction.

In her essay ‘Experience’, Dorothea von Hantelmann draws attention to ways in which Höller’s practice acts to undermine the critique of the ‘experiential turn’ in art practice:

The focus on the production of experience here thus means neither that art ignores its own conditions, nor that it gives up any critical condition. To the contrary, it leads to a détournement, a subversion and reorganization of precisely those values upon which the art context is based.5 Dorothea von Hantelmann, ‘Experience’, in Carsten Höller: Experience, p. 164.

This understanding of Höller’s methodology captures the inherent complexity and criticality of the artist’s practice, and his challenge to the audience and museum alike.

Simon Maidment, Curator, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Notes

1

Galleries and museums have traditionally been spaces of Cartesian philosophy where the concrete, the corporeal and the visible have been privileged. This is despite the fact that the rise of these institutions in the seventeenth century, and then their mass proliferation in the late twentieth century, was concurrent with philosophy’s focus on ontology, metaphysics and immanence. Höller’s approach throughout his career has been to invite the art institution to question this Cartesian basis, through supporting and presenting a range of projects that critique assumed notions of visuality and call for a reassessment of the value of the experiential within these contexts.

2

As Höller himself writes in an artist statement for an earlier project: ‘The experiment will thus be a very unscientific one, as objectivity is not the aim. It will rather be a unique opportunity to experience with others the possibility of getting away from what you usually are’ (Carsten Höller, ‘The Baudouin/Boudewijn Experiment: A Deliberate, Non-Fatalistic Large Scale Group Experiment in Deviation, 2000’, in Clare Bishop [ed.], Participation, Whitechapel, London & The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006, p. 145).

3

William S. Smith, ‘Optics’, in Carsten Höller: Experience, Skira Rizzoli Publications & New Museum, New York, p. 196.

4

‘According to the first thesis [of Henri Bergson’s philosophy of time] movement is distinct from the space covered. Space covered is past, movement is present, the act of covering’ (Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986, p. 1). Some quiet time spent on the slowly moving carousel might even invite a reflection on the nature of time itself, and our experience of it: time passes while we are on it, acutely aware of our presentness.

5

Dorothea von Hantelmann, ‘Experience’, in Carsten Höller: Experience, p. 164.