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Experiential art: Decision at The Hayward

Belgian artist Carsten Höller is best known for his ability to turn museums into fun-zones for both adults and children with symmetrical slide installations, inverted vision goggles, and flight simulation machines, giving visitors a ‘legal art-gallery high’.

His exhibit at the Hayward Gallery Website transformed the typically sterile gallery shell into an alternate world where predictability is Höller’s antagonist. His ultimate goal is to undermine the predictability of life whilst provoking the five senses. He wove the themes of perception and reflection in many elements throughout the space, transporting visitors between different physical and psychological states. As per the title, Decision, Höller sets forth instances in which visitors are placed in decision-making scenarios, some clear-cut and others hazy; through their involvement, the visitors are the most unpredictable aspect of the exhibit.

Never before have I visited an exhibit where my personal decisions affected the way I experienced art. I first stepped into a tunnel of darkness where I had to rely on touch to find my way to the entrance of the first room where massive mushrooms hung on a rotating mobile. I entered the space perplexed and a bit disoriented as my eyes adjusted to the light – this state of confusion is what Höller seeks to tease out of each and every visitor. The ‘hallucinatory trip’ took more of a literal form with Pill Clock where red-and-white pills dropped from the ceiling every three seconds to an expanding pile on the floor. To add to this semi-psychedelic experience, visitors were encouraged to decide whether or not to swallow the mystery pill.

The pill, which represents the enhanced imagination and the heightened senses, segued to the more apparent ways in which Höller created his alternative world. The metaphorical act of taking the pill and further entering an altered state of mind was enhanced when I reached The Forests. This was Höller’s ‘experiment in seeing double’ where visitors wore video goggles and headphones that transported them further into Höller’s world, free of the constant gallery hum. Immediately propelled to a dark winter forest, I was unsettled as the screen split and two visions appeared simultaneously. Upside Down Goggles had a similar effect – disorienting. Outside, people wearing the devices wobbled around like infants learning to walk; the world was turned on its head, literally, as the mirrors placed the sky at the ground and vice versa.

If this ‘legal art-gallery high’ was coming to an end, I would have felt complete but a fan of the unpredictable, Höller surprised our inner child with Two Flying Machines. On another other deck, visitors got the opportunity to fly (or rotate) above the edge of the building and Waterloo Bridge. The machines ‘resemble a combination of carousel, paraglider, and motorbike’ and fully immersed participants and onlookers alike in the exhibition experience. The pièce de résistance lay at the end of the exhibit: Isometric Slides. I waited with anticipation for this as the slides, like two undulating sculptures, were visible from the building’s exterior, teasing onlookers of the immersive experience.

The last decision Höller put forth was the choice between which of the two slides to exit the exhibit. The corkscrew curves were the final installation which transported visitors, both physically and psychologically, in space. After making my final decision, my feet were once again firmly on the ground and my mind back in the ‘dictatorship of the predictable’, just as Höller intended.

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