Go See – Berlin: Carsten Höller “Soma” at Hamburger Bahnhof through February 6, 2011

December 13th, 2010

Carsten Höller, Soma, 2010. Courtesy Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart

Twelve reindeer, twenty-four canaries, eight mice, and two flies currently reside in Carsten Höller‘s new installation, Soma, in the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin.  Höller’s fantasy land can also be your home for one night – for the price of 1,000 euros (stay includes a nighttime tour of the museum with a guard, as well as breakfast).

Carsten Höller, Soma, 2010. Courtesy Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart

More story and images after the jump…

Carsten Höller, Soma, 2010. Courtesy Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart

The exhibition takes its title from the mythical drink referred to in ancient Hindu texts, a liquid that is supposed to have been consumed by gods and mortals seeking enlightenment. It is said that reindeer urine and hallucinogenic mushrooms formed the base of the elixir, and it is up to the viewer in Höller’s installation to infer whether or not the roaming  animals have imbibed elements of this mythical drink. Who, he seems to ask, is the control group in this experiment? Set against this backdrop, the introductory text suggests, “Höller has devised a fantastical scenario that stands at the crossroads between art and science, laboratory and dream, supposed objectivity and heightened subjectivity.”

Carsten Höller, Soma, 2010. Courtesy Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart

Themes explored in Soma are those that have run through Höller’s practice since the beginning, namely: what role is science given in our society, and what role myth? Do we need to find alternative categories for experience and alternative approaches to awakening consciousness? Viewer participation in Höller’s environments are much less an end in itself than a vehicle to test the artist’s theories of human perception and physiological reactions. One part clinical, one part sensual, Höller’s work opens up questions about human relationships and how aspects of our world can be scientifically explained.

Carsten Höller, Soma, 2010. Courtesy Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart

Linguists, anthropologists, mycologists, and botanists alike have been searching for the composition of soma for millennia. Sifting through Sanskrit verses, they aimed at uncovering its compounds, but no consensus has yet been reached. In his life-size experiment, Höller continues the research done by American scientist Gordon R. Wasson, whose 1968 thesis on the origin and makeup of the potent potable informed the artist’s inquiry. A publication that accompanies the exhibition analyzes Wasson’s work and offers a cross-section of the range of research done on the subject. In this sense, the targeted observation of a scientific investigation overlaps with the non-directional contemplation at the heart of aesthetic reception.

Höller’s work has always sought to release itself from the bounds of a traditional white cube setting. His 2006 work Test Site, which was part of the Tate Modern’s Unilever Series, tested a hypothesis he had been investigating for some time concerning the possible effects of sliding. “What would be the result of sliding if it was part of the daily routine?” he wondered. Other works include Upside-Down Mushroom Room (2000), an installation of large scale revolving mushrooms hanging from the ceiling of an upside down room; Ball House (1999) and Frisbee House (2000), where visitors could play in rooms filled to the brim with balls and Frisbees. Amusement Park (2006) at Mass MoCA consisted of an eerie reproduction of an amusement park with painfully slowly-moving rides visitors could walk among but not ride. The installation had a fun-house effect: it toyed with the viewer’s sensory perception, luring one from the certainties of everyday life to the disorienting and unknown.

In 2008, Höller opened a pop-up club in London called The Double Club, which was an examination of the cross-pollination of Congolese and western culture. Duality, both internal and external, was central to this investigation; visual elements of each culture were given equal floor space in the work. “It’s so much more interesting to produce an environment where you can subject yourself to a very personal experience,” he said in an interview with the Guardian, “where you can use that experience as the raw material, rather than simply oil paints or marble.”

Carsten Höller, Soma, 2010. Courtesy Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart

“While his work as a scientist was devoted to solving problems and narrowing down the field of uncertainty,” writes Elizabeth Day, “his work as an artist became a prolonged meditation on the quality of doubt and possibility.” Employing a multitude of sensory experiences, Höller’s works appeal to points of access and associations. In Soma, the viewer can lose him- or herself in songs of canaries and the smell of farm stables. He puts the power in the viewers’ hands: the completion and evaluation of the hypothetical experiment lives on in their imaginations.

Carsten Höller was born in 1961 in Brussels, gaining worldwide attention with his expansive 2006 work Test Site at Tate Modern‘s Turbine Hall. In this same year he represented Sweden (with Miriam Bäckström) at the Venice Biennale; he now lives and works in Stockholm. Before his artistic career, Höller earned a doctorate in biology, a discipline which consistently informs his artistic practice.

– J. Lindblad

Related Links:

Exhibition Site [Hamburger Bahnhof]
VIDEO of installation [Curated Mag]
VIDEO of installation [Art in Berlin]
Fungus Among Us [New York Times]
Review [Art Info]
Top of the pop-ups [The Guardian]
At Berlin Museum, Reindeer, Art, and Overnight Stays [New York Times]
A Nighttime Spin at the Guggenheim [New York Times]