Plane Sight

Buenos Aires
08.24.05

Left: Jennifer Allen. (Photo: Madhav Batta) Right: The view out the airplane window.


It was an offer I could not refuse: Fly upside-down from Berlin to Buenos Aires. When the architectural collective m7red invited me down south, the artist Carsten Höller provided the exceptional means of transport: A pair of Upside-Down Goggles, 1994-2001. As ophthalmologists and students of geeky trivia know, the human eye actually turns images upside down as rays of light are focused on the retina. The fact that things appear right side up is merely a trick of the mind. Inspired by equipment devised for psychological experiments, Höller's goggles simulate vision without the inversion of the retinal image. “In other words, you see what your eyeballs really see before the brain straightens things out again,” the artist notes.

The first leg of the trip—from Berlin to Paris—was nothing short of spectacular. Whatever drugs you have taken, nothing can prepare you for takeoff—take down?—with Höller's goggles. The plane slowly fell down from the big runway on the top of the sky, and, just as I was revising my view of the cosmos, a steward delivered my next challenge: The meal tray. After catapulting a bread roll into my neighbor's lap, I decided against pouring the Chardonnay into the wineglass and just drank the whole thing directly from the bottle. Vive l'expérience!

Moving around the airplane was easy, as they are all built according to the same cramped standard, a design I am all too familiar with. But getting from Terminal A to Terminal C at Charles de Gaulle was another story. The escalator—with the stairs rushing up to my feet—turned into a terrifying detour. Thanks to Madhav Bhatta, a businessman on his way to Beijing, I managed to find a seat near the right gate (Buenos Aires, not Abidjan). Waiting for our flights, we compared notes on duty-free luxuries versus gravity-free vision.

The next thirteen and a half hours from Paris to Buenos Aires were dark and dull. I ended up sitting in the middle of a row, so my view was limited to the miniscreen stuck on the seat in front of me. Emmanuelle Beart—the star of our in-flight movie—looked fabulous upside down. So fabulous that I decided to throw out my facial creams and stand on my head every day. Sucking back another Chardonnay, I watched us fly up the coast of South America on the geo-map. By the time breakfast arrived, I had become an expert with the meal tray and the star of my row. Both my neighbors insisted on a full report of the experiment.

“Sin anteojos!” barked a rather large policeman manning the passport control. I found out quickly that this means “No glasses!” in Spanish. Thus ended my experiment. A heavy sensation invaded my head as I waited for my bag. When I missed the handle (twice), I realized that my hands had adjusted to the upside-down world. Indeed, my welcoming crew—the architects Pio Torroja and Mauricio Corbalan—had to convince me that the little things in life, from taxi doors to elevator buttons, were not inverted below the equator. “Maybe over in Australia...”

And the next experiment? Höller, who is preparing a solo show for September at Gagosian's London branch, has made works that explore hallucinogenic visions as well as drugs. Maybe I'll do the opening on LSD.