December 11, 2011

Art you enter, art you act — Carsten Höller show breaks records at the New Museum

Those people sliding down the tubes and lying naked in the flotation tank didn’t need a degree in art history or deep familiarity with contemporary art to enjoy the hell out of this show. They were the show, physically and socially. But the next time they visit a museum, how will they feel about, looking at art?

Visitor floating in Carsten Höller's "Psycho Tank" at the New Museum. Photo Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Blogging last year about participatory or “social practice” art, I wondered if a divide might arise between audiences for that sort of art experience and audiences for the more traditional, look-but-don’t-touch kind.  The success of the Höller show — averaging 1,700 visitors per day, a 30% lift over the New Museum’s previous exhibition record of 1,300 per day — underlines the possibility that artists working in this mode are altering museumgoers’ notions of what an art exhibition should do for them and what their role in it should be.

What happens when they bring those expectations to the museum on their next visit? Does non-participatory art, or a museum that isn’t premised on active, socially-constructed engagement, suddenly begin to look stodgy and stale?

Above: Waiting for the three-story corkscrew slide. Photo Benjamin Sutton
Below: Taking the plunge. Photo Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

That would be a problem, of course. I’d hate to see the act of beholding something extraordinary fall to the cultural wayside. But as an alternative to the inwardness and preciousness — the self-contained, even smug feeling — that too many people encoutner in too many contemporary art settings, Höller’s vision of the museum experience is bracing and overdue.

Instead of “referring to” or “evoking” or “embodying” (as the wall panels at a modern or contemporary art museum might put it) basic human states and activities like play, fear, eros, bewilderment, and giddiness, Höller has us be and do those things. Talk about “Art as Experience,” the title of John Dewey’s 1934 contrarian take on aesthetics, which now looks way ahead of its time. (Or maybe Höller and all this immersive and participatory action look like the literalization of Dewey.) ...

Not that this is really new or unique to Höller. His dizzying slides at the New Museum, Tate Modern, and elsewhere are higher-brow versions of what the late sculptor Bob Cassilly built over the last fifteen years at the City Museum in St. Louis (photo at right) — a place I’ve always thought of as a giant artwork masquerading as a playground.

And see this terrific paper by audience researchers Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak for a snapshot of participatory engagement in the performing arts and other corners of the cultural sector.

All of which raises questions about curatorial and programming priorities. It’s easy to say that art to be looked at and art to be played in are just two different modes of expression and engagement, neither intrinsically better than the other and both welcome on a museum’s exhibition calendar. But what if there are real attendance and revenue implications? What if people vote for this kind of whole-body experience with their feet? Museum visitors have always been taught what an art museum is and does by their previous visits to art museums. Today’s cultural audiences learn the same way. Thanks to artists like Höller and the curators who let them freely remake the museum experience, we’re beginning to give those consumers new and (if you ask me) powerful ideas about what they can expect when they step across that threshold. It’ll be interesting to see how those expectations rebound, and how they reshape the meaning of the word "museum."

Additional photo credit: City Museum slide image by Silver Smith.

Gretchen Jennings — December 12, 2011

You may have seen the recent article, The Long Slide, by Jerry Salz in NY Magazine about this show, which began, "J'accuse museums of bullshit!" totally dismissing the entire effort. I wish I were closer to New York to be able to see the exhibition and judge for myself.

Leah Reisman — December 29, 2011

It would also be interesting to think about how visitors to the Höller show talk about the exhibition--do they compare it to more "traditional" art exhibitions, or put it in its own separate category? And what, if anything, does this exhibition say about the evolution of contemporary art, and the ways in which it necessitates a parallel evolution in display strategies?

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.