Naked and Nauseated at the New Museum

11/09/2011 7:00 AM |

There’s a slide ready to be ridden in the New Museum. It’s part of Carsten Höller’s career survey Experience (through January 15), and it’s only one element of a show that takes every device from a traveling carnival except the concession stands.

I don’t have any problem with this as an exhibition concept—I like fun—but it doesn’t leave me with much to write about it. Experience is more about emptying your mind than it is about contemplating a specific philosophical question, so the kinds of conversations the show tends to inspire will more often revolve around the work than delve into its meaning.

New York audiences may be used to this; 2008 alone brought Pipilotti Rist’s blissed-out atrium installation at MoMA, and Olafur Eliasson’s mood-altering light installations at MoMA PS1. Both were participation-based. Visiting the New Museum requires an extra step before getting to this: signing waivers! I’m not pregnant or short, but there was enough paperwork to make me worry I might be wrong about that and be liable for something. I also worried I would either lose or damage the exhibition goggles loaned to me; the viewing device turns everything upside down and costs $1,500 to replace.

As far as I can tell, the goggles are mostly about disorienting the viewer enough to diminish the presence of the institution. The museum’s context is, after all, distracting: I jokingly told one friend that viewers would frantically be looking for a wall label as they went down the slide just so they could validate their experience as art.

I was sacrificing accuracy for a bit of humor when I said this, an act I only felt vaguely guilty about, if at all. Sliding through the translucent slide is probably the closest thing to luge I’ll ever do so I really didn’t think of anything past my own thrill. Still, you see the museum through the Plexiglas, so the experience is confused by the idea that this is also somehow about art.

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with this line of inquiry, but it doesn’t lead anywhere interesting. The most successful works are those that manage to unhinge themselves from the institutional context. Höller’s enclosed sensory deprivation pool met this end mostly because the New Museum’s walls weren’t visible, though entering it was a bit of a trial. Privacy is in shorter supply than I would like, given that the piece is best experienced naked and viewers can see into the structure from certain angles. But once disrobed and floating in the heated salt water, if I thought of anything at all it was only of the mysterious way my still body moved around the pool.

Such elements permeate the show, making the viewer’s role alternate between participant and voyeur. I can’t say this amounted to the most transformative art experience I’ve ever had, but I did feel significantly more relaxed after having spent 10 minutes in the pool, which for me is something of an achievement—I’m not exactly the easy-going type, a personality trait that’s exaggerated while on the job. This calm state of mind probably made my disorienting, goggled trip on the silver merry-go-round a little more bearable, but it did nothing to improve the smaller works. A bottoms-eye view of a fish tank and an alcove filled with white pills are less about actual experience than what is imagined—in this case, apparently, a generic acid trip.

This is a bit of a letdown, though not one a viewer is allowed to sit with for any length of time. On a claustrophobic elevator ride back to the ground floor, I watched two black and white film loops of rising dots and felt like I was going to puke. Somehow this seemed like a positive note on which to end.

(Images courtesy the artist and the New Museum. Photo: Benoit Pailley)