Family Vacation

John Haber
in New York City

Carsten Höller and Theme-Park Art

Everyone knows, at least from film comedy, the terrors of a family vacation—but more often than not it comes down to one thing. The kids remember the thrills, while the parents remember the lines. The generation gap gives new meaning to "relational esthetics."

How much one enjoys Carsten Höller may depend on whether one goes as an adult or as one's inner child. Even better, go as both and nurture the conflicts.

Is it the Disney-fication of the art scene? Höller can promise thrills and then reward or disappoint the promise, seemingly without a thought, or he can get one thinking. Carsten Holler's Untitled (Slide) (New Museum, 2011)He can also turn an entire museum into a family vacation. Then, again, in an age of blockbusters, the Museum of Modern Art has longer lines. Besides, if one grows tired of his sliding ponds, one can always take an elevator, with still more busted architecture by Leandro Erlich and others.

Control issues

The child in you will remember the New Museum as an enormous playground. It comes with a cross between a merry-go-round and a hall of mirrors, plus a video of cars circling without lanes, like real-life bumper cars. It comes with a theater, Infrared Room, in which one discovers that the only actor is oneself. It comes with a tunnel of love—or rather a narrow corridor with a 3D forest and a vial of a "love drug." It comes with a pool and an aquarium, and one can enter both. Best (or worst) of all, it comes with a sliding pond running all the way from the fourth to the second floor, and in no time cries of "I did it!" had gone viral on Facebook and beyond.

Then again, you may remember proceeding from the coat check to the ticket line to the line to sign wavers before you can experience the really cool stuff. You may remember that only one can slide down the tube at a time (with fabric to protect the stainless steel or one's pants), only six can enter the pool, and you have shower first. You may remember arguing with the guard that you do want to go in and not just gawk at the other nudes, the only sort of childishness that he will not permit. You may remember circling back to sign yet another waver before you can stumble around while seeing the place upside down and backward—and then wait for someone to free up the goggles. Then, too, you may remember that Höller has had carousels before, with lots of flashing lights, and multiple tubes, most notoriously at Tate Modern in 2006. With "relational esthetics," a retrospective can seem suspiciously like repeating the same shtick over and over again.

Nicolas Bourriaud, a French critic, coined the term to describe several European artists who work between performance and installation, but with the visitor as performer. It promises an art not in objects but experience—and not in the avant-garde artist but in the relationships between oneself, the gallery, and others. It derives from Fluxus but also Minimalism, which Michael Fried derided as theater, like the tubes from Dan Flavin that bathe one in light or the tiles from Carl Andre that simply serve as the floor. It also owes a debt to the more confrontational theater of Paul McCarthy or Bruce Nauman, with their own jesters and clowns. It fell right in with the bloated installations and boy toys of a booming art market. Suddenly the refusal to make art made the artist a star.

The Guggenheim rounded up the movement just two years ago, with "theanyspacewhatever," and it definitely had control issues, as has Tomás Saraceno on the Met's roof. Pierre Huyghe had already turned Le Corbusier into a puppet show, Thomas Hirschhorn had made visitors crawl through a terrorist camp, and Douglas Gordon had subjected one to an excruciating shower scene for 24-Hour Psycho. At the Guggenheim someone could stay overnight, in Höller's stylized hotel room on a revolving platform, but no luxury hotel could ever be as exclusive. None slowly spins its guests either as they sleep. And the more the movement became bland and exclusive, naturally the more it came to suit museums. Barely a week after Höller, Maurizio Cattelan (no longer dead) returns to the Guggenheim, and MoMA will soon have Rirkrit Tiravanija serving up his mild curry yet again.

Höller still has control issues, like the slide that resembles pneumatic mailing tubes from a forgotten office nightmare. To his credit, though, they are the least of his problems. I chickened out before walking far with the goggles, lest I do serious damage to others. Still, one gets better at it, I hear, and I bet the experience grows more chaotic if one does. (The world actually rights itself in a week or so.) The slide provides the one truly frightening experience, taking me way faster than I expected—but also the one I relished.

My heart was racing for hours, and I wish that anything surprised me half as much. (Oops, I just gave away the surprise.) The problem is how little a show about doubts and experience makes one doubt one's experience. And the less one doubts, the more the New Museum turns back into Disney World, with waits. That hotel room already had a problem with recycled luxury—and who honestly cared that it rotated, given the more obvious break with the familiar of a night in the museum? Here, too, as curated by Massililiano Giano with Gary Carrion-Murayari and Jenny Moore, deceptive surfaces are less than they appear.

Time passes slowly

If the slide goes way faster than one ever imagined, the carousel goes more slowly. It has playground swings in place of carousel horses, steel chains and all, and it may trick one, the museum hints, into forgetting that it also it moves. In reality, no one could forget, or one could not hop on. The reflection in its mirrored center is going nowhere fast as well. A suspended wooden tunnel curves, spreads, and even moves slightly as one walks through, but it is hard to notice and harder to care. That infrared theater looks nothing more than black and white.

This art comes with more than its share of hokum, like the vial with a transparent chemical that motivated the pop-culture "chocolate theory of love." If another experiment, The Pinocchio Effect, makes you think that your nose is growing, you must be lying to yourself. Even the debunking of hokum comes with a touch of hokum, like an alcove of free pills of plain gelatin. Things grow worse when Höller abandons art environments for art objects, as if for the amusement park's gift shop. He includes half a floor of brightly colored animals, somewhere between asleep and beached. He includes a museum cafeteria filled with giant mushrooms, growing no doubt in silly season.

As Bob Dylan wrote, time passes slowly when you're lost in a dream, but one is never lost or dreaming. The animals look too cute for words, and the mushrooms derive more from a children's book than a hallucination. A merry-go-round is still a merry-go-round. A mobile of canary cages evokes less modern art than a classroom, and the canaries sing. The pool, Giant Psycho Tank, owes less to Hitchcock or Gordon than to a bath house. One floats in its salinated water while contemplating one's inner something or other—or someone else's external genitals.

As so often with childhood, Höller's art has an element of nostalgia. A lobby mural of parallel hatched lines, which appear to diverge or converge, goes back to nineteenth-century optical experiments. The acrylic model of more intricate tubes evokes an ideal city's skyscrapers and laboratory equipment. Born in Belgium, the German artist indeed has a PhD in biology, with work on insects. Yet whenever art and science intersect, they tend to return to an older and quainter notion natural history. Perhaps they must, for art has as much to do with doubts, surfaces, and experience as with theory.

Sure then—slide, take a dip, gawk, lay back, and stick your head in to see fish swimming above. Give the artist credit for the range of associations that never quite work out. Give the overrated museum architecture credit, too, for not collapsing with holes in two of its floors. Even give Höller credit for anticipating what goes wrong. Perhaps the point is the contrast between the carousel's unexpectedly slow pace and the slide's unexpectedly fast one. Perhaps the point, too, is the temptation to stare at naked others while pretending to look within, and psychedelia slips easily into consumer culture.

And that brings one back to one's inner child and one's residual adult. In the catalog, Hal Foster speaks of play and testing, and the artist's self-awareness and his theme of self-awareness have a real advantage over much of relational esthetics. They just happen to leave the childishness of installation art untouched. They leave the museum as fun house, but with too few surprises to disturb the fun. And they leave the artist above it all, conducting experiments and hoping they will all work out. As on the merry-go-round, things move slowly, where they ought to outrace the imagination.

Call me a cab

Once maybe twenty years ago, the Times head critic described 57th Street as "trial by elevator." A midtown office building back then took endurance, although not like the hundreds of Chelsea galleries, transient Lower East Side leases, or miles between shows in Brooklyn today. And few had the patience to describe more of it sympathetically than John Russell. My own trial came one afternoon in the Fuller building, where Lee Krasner at Robert Miller or the hairdresser's chemicals down the hall could bring tears to my eyes. As the elevator doors closed, the theme from Mission Impossible kicked in. My mission, should I choose to accept it, was clear.

As for the most dysfunctional elevator in Chelsea, that would be telling. For the most elegant, however, ask Leandro Erlich. He adapts Surrealism's warped mirrors to contemporary real estate. One work even looks like a hall of mirrors, and it takes a minute to realize that one is peering instead into other cabs. One more elevator is stuck between floors with the concrete chassis exposed, while still another opens now and again to reveal only a video interior, packed quite well, thank you. The most dramatic has departed entirely, leaving a shaft running horizontally in place of a connecting hall.

Russell's joke sums up a more refined state of the art. Once conceptual art focused one's attention on one's surroundings and oneself. Now it focuses on artists, blockbusters, and serious money. One has to get up the courage to enter those elevators, not because one could be trapped, but because one may not have permission. Erlich, who previously simulated a swimming pool, is just out for a good time, and it could cost you. It hardly helps that the show opened the day before September 11, when an elevator shaft meant life or death.

Still, trashy installations can matter because architecture matters, especially fictive architecture. Adam Marnie does not settle for self-awareness, not when he can punch a few holes in the wall. "Locus Rubric" treats the gallery, as he puts it, as a site of rupture. It could pass for a performance in progress by Kate Gilmore. Along with mirrors and Sheetrock, Marnie constructs patterns picture frames and images of flowers, plus a few well-timed kicks. His chambers within chambers could pass for Minimalism, wallpaper, or the real thing.

Ceal Floyer, too, is straining to break out, and the strain is showing. She works with industrial materials, and she seems to have found them not in Home Depot, but at an art fair. A stack of nearly nine thousand numbered sheets rips off Félix González-Torres. If 9/11 weighs on Erlich, Gonzáles-Torres evokes a funeral monument in "September 11" at PS1. An aluminum ladder missing all but its top and bottom rungs rips off everyone from Paul Klee to Martin Puryear. Something similar flies across the ceiling for Sanford Biggers, as part of his "Voodoo Cosmic Circus."

Objects like these confuse spareness with trivia, and the performance seems frozen in time long ago. A row of small speakers emits busy signals, as ambient sound rather than cell-phone annoyance. Another wall has a Do Not Remove sign, surrounded by rows of holes like the sign's own. Does it matter that a construction site would say almost exactly the opposite, Post No Bills? Art like this is desperate to make an impression. Call me a cab.

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Carsten Höller ran at the New Museum through January 15, 2012. Leandro Erlich ran at Sean Kelly through October 22, 2011, Adam Marnie at Derek Eller through October 8, Ceal Floyer at 303 Gallery through October 29, and Sanford Biggers at SculptureCenter through November 28.


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