Pied Piper in the Funhouse

Like a giant daddy figure, Carsten Höller tosses us around, making us all giddy and dizzy. The entire set-up relies heavily on our willingness to take on the role of gullible children.

Carsten Höller, Gartenkinder, 2014/2019. Installation view, Copenhagen Contemporary, 2019. Photo: Attilio Maranzano. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian.

Carsten Höller regards himself as an engine of confusion. For almost thirty years now, he has dizzied his audience by means of aerial roundabouts, fly agaric toadstools, and halls of mirrors, and critics have seen his vast, monstrous installations as proof positive of the increasing carnivalisation of art. Like some giant daddy figure, he tosses the usually restrained art audience all around, making us feel tiny, dizzy, and giddy, as my five-year-old child would say. Or… when you think about it, he probably creates images of ecstatic confusion rather than evoking it directly in us.

As is demonstrated by the current presentation of three Höller installations featuring old and slightly newer works at Copenhagen Contemporary, his roundabouts turn too slowly to be any fun; we are allowed to touch, but not taste the fly agaric, and the hall of mirrors prompts a sensation of claustrophobia rather than one of euphoric infinity. In Höller’s amusement park, eager anticipation and squeals of joy have been replaced by nausea, disappointment, and paranoia, which are quite grown-up things, really, and would only be regarded as entertainment by flagellants. .

At the same time, the whole thing is set in a classic and clinical setting pervaded by a 1990s aesthetic that has a mentally disciplining and strongly retinal effect, even if we are allowed to touch everything and play with it. 

The hosts, also known as “child carers” – all of them female, of course – wear uniforms: beautiful dresses which match the carpeting on the walls and flare out into pleated skirts. As a visitor, one feels rather more like a lab rat, a biological chemical factory in the hands of a mad scientist than as an equal co-creating spectator of the kind so intensely cultivated by Höller’s generation of relational aestheticists. Dressed up in its own pleated skirt, the entire venue – which has obviously gone to tremendous effort to put on this beautiful display – comes across as a neat secretary in the service of a higher intelligence. Höller reserves the right to be uncontrollable, but keeps it all to himself. Thus, the entire scene of confusion seems greatly dependent on his ability to discipline both the audience and the art institution, urging them to play their part as admiring, but ignorant. Höller acts as a kind of mother figure that encourages, yet simultaneously restricts and inhibits wild unpredictable thinking and free art with her well-meaning care, naïve enthusiasm, and helpful accompanying texts.

This is a classic avant-garde fantasy: seeking to master and control one’s essentially unpredictable audience through codes and gestures pointing to a truth to which only the initiated sorcerers, great artists, and professors supposedly have access. Walter Benjamin and Boris Groys both wrote insightful observations about the phenomenon many years ago, but still we continue to reiterate the trope to this day, which is why the art world is constantly undermining its own significance in false – and strangely gendered – contrasts and oppositions between artist, institution, and audience. The paradox becomes all the greater where Höller is concerned, because he is the artist famous for having left behind the world of science precisely to avoid such things.

Before Höller became an artist, he worked with agricultural research, which made him realise that the truths of science are not objective. To his surprise, they are shaped by the individuals and institutions that produce them. Inspired, probably, by anthropologist Bruno Latour’s famous 1970s field studies in various labs, he realised that scientific objectivity and facts are entities that we humans produce and negotiate in extensive networks and power plays involving many institutions, peers, political agendas, and whatever man-made technology happens to be available at the time. Not that the forces of nature are just a social construct – a theory which a furious physicist once suggested he might test by throwing Latour out of a window on the twenty-fifth floor.

Carsten Höller, Killing Children, 1990-2019. Installation view, Copenhagen Contemporary, 2019. Courtesy the artist.Photo: Attilio Maranzano.

Even so, the idea that following a scientific method enables one to arrive at facts that transcend the people who worked with them, elevating them into objective truths, is a human idea. Latour observed that more time is spent on negotiating and naturalising data and facts than on the actual discovery and production of them. Natural laws are immortal, just like brilliant art.

This ‘truth engine’ can be applied fairly directly to the art world, too, where we still believe that we are being objectively presented with the biggest, best, and most important artists (whose lives have no impact on their art), and where we are still afraid of violating artistic intentions with institutional action. The idea that art would do very well, if not better, without the institution and all the people who constantly reproduce its setting remains a powerful notion today.

Despite these insights, Höller, with his scientific background, has cast himself as the Victor Frankenstein of art and proved himself capable of playing the role of a post-genius genius, making him one of the most widely venerated artists of the 1990s. He has enjoyed a considerable and seductive head start in an art world still upheld by an art-historical tradition that cultivates positivist evidence rather than hermeneutic activation of knowledge, and which suffers from a firmly embedded sense of inferiority when faced with disciplines working with ‘real’ – i.e. methodologically produced – knowledge.

It is true that Höller calls his art anti-science, even though the sense of confusion – or complexity – found in his work hardly seems to arise out of randomly googled information, intuitive postulates, or simply a general sense of disorder. Rather, it is driven by a stringent and systematic concept. Most of his art is quite simple, mathematically speaking; it is based on doublings which can lead to the creation of very complex structures. Human cell division is one example. Indeed, the exhibition at CC is called Reproduction, addressing every sense of the word.

Carsten Höller, Six Sliding Doors, 2019. Installation view, Copenhagen Contemporary, 2019. Photo: Attilio Maranzano. Courtesy the artist.

First of all, of course, Höller reproduces himself by displaying old works or reusing the same themes and motifs he has always used. He also shows Six Sliding Doors, a mirror-based work that doubles and repeats all who enter, and which is in itself a 2019 variation on an older work originally created in the early 2000s.

In turn, the work acts as a central axis around which the exhibition’s two main installations mirror one another: on one side we find the cheerful Gartenkinder (Garden children, 2014)full of playground equipment and amusement rides to romp in at will under the well-groomed supervision of the child carers. On the other side of the glass tunnel we find a 1990s work that is apparently not shown very frequently, Killing children. Popularly known as “the child traps,” the work certainly doesn’t revolve around nurturing children.: Iinstead, it offers thirty-three suggestions on how to use their trust to capture and murder them. The most cruel and evil aspects of Grimm’s fairy tales, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and Krampus merge with Kinder Surprise and creepy dolls. 

The work dates back from a time when many artists were ‘anti-breeders’ on general principles, confronting and rejecting the family structures in which they were raised and regarding children as impediments to a serious career. Today it is probably more likely to be read as a climate-related comment on the human urge for reproduction rather than as a neo-avant-garde leering at the idea of family and (female) care work. 

At the same time, however, one imagines Höller to be too intelligent to play Malthus, unequivocally seeing reproduction as a threat to human prosperity and the planet itself. As readers may have noticed, it tends to be white privileged artists and intellectuals – including art scene darlings such as our much-beloved Donna Haraway, herself among the most ardent anti-reproduction advocates – who tour the world without ever really reckoning with the climate footprint of the realm of science (or art). We can only yet again observe that as ever, the buck stops with those who consume the least in this world.

We are given no answer as to who or what Höller thinks is “the superfluous human being,” even though the texts accompanying the exhibition were written by the artist himself, or rather, by his alter ego (perhaps even Frankenstein’s monster), a figure known as “art critic Baldo Hauser.” Hauser is allowed to say all the things that Höller won’t, as well as everything he doesn’t dare leave up to the institution to put into words. It is all very good fun, and mentally stimulating. Yet it is also deeply annoying because we just know that the artist himself would never bother to take a ride on his own roundabout, dangling his legs helplessly and calling for his mum.

Carsten Höller, Gartenkinder, 2014/2019. Installation view, Copenhagen Contemporary, 2019. Photo: Attilio Maranzano. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian.