View of “Experience,” 2011.


Carsten Höller’s first survey exhibition in New York, “Experience,” consists of merry-go-rounds, giant slides, sensory deprivation tanks, and spinning mobiles, among other experiential artworks. Here, the former scientist discusses his ambition to induce states of “madness” by creating immersive artistic environments that test the limits of human perception. The Stockholm-based artist has taken over the entire New Museum, and his show will be on view until January 15, 2012.

ARE SLIDES ONLY FOR CHILDREN? I really don’t think they are, and I can’t see any reason why adults only use stairs, elevators, and escalators. Sliding is a very safe thing to do—it’s very cost-effective, it’s very fast, and best of all it produces an incredible moment of madness. It’s hard to describe this specific feeling of madness in words—voluptous panic?—but I’m sure that if people used slides every day, it would change their lives. In some ways, my entire show is set up to make you mad.

Our culture tries to control everything we encounter in our lives—and we have learned to manage our surroundings quite well. The luxury we can afford ourselves now is to try and let go, which is exactly what I’m proposing to do in ”Experience.” I hope that people who visit the show are able to let go and to see what happens if they forget about these things that they think they need to predict their daily lives. In other words, I hope that people begin to just let experience happen the way it will and that this sense of madness arises from it. Our culture denies this possibility, maybe because the madness is too much or has been too much. In former times, the rise of consciousness produced the means to control madness, but now we can give it some space again.

Because the show is so much about self-experimentation, I’ve used the museum as a body. When you are invited to create an exhibition like this, often what happens is that you come to a place where an architect has made a strong statement, as in this case. And then it’s this Moby Dick situation, because you are in the belly of the whale. In “Experience,” it’s as if you’re within a head and body but one that is not yours, that you invade like a parasite with your own thoughts and your own ideas about yourself and, of course, your own experiments. Many of the works in the show are tools that can be applied to your feeling of presence, to the concept of the self. It’s almost like you are exposing yourself. If you were a strip of film, for example, the show would be the light, producing an image that’s specific only to you and what is inside you and that only you can see. In some ways, it’s a show without any preconceived images.

My work is a proposition—because some of these pieces may not actually work on viewers, or, rather, participants. You always have to see them as artworks, and they have a practical side—you can interact with them—but they also provide something to consider. The way we perceive the world and ourselves is necessarily through the lens of culture, and because there are many different cultures existing at the same time on this earth, there is no reason to believe that our reality is the only reality. There must be something more. My work arises from a built-up frustration that this can’t be it, that daily experience can’t be this limited. In some ways, my work is about science fiction, trying to find the other, a culture of madness. I often don’t believe we’re ready for it, but still, it’s coming.

— As told to Allese Thomson Baker