LAST OCTOBER AT TATE BRITAIN, during the penultimate “prologue” to this year’s Tate Triennial, curator Nicolas Bourriaud invited Carsten Höller to give a talk about traveling. Höller, a longtime fan of Congolese music, offered a meandering travelogue about his first visit to the Congo and the type of decor, food, and music he found there. He showed a couple of music videos and was at pains to tell us that this wasn’t an artist’s talk. It was business as usual, until Russian provocateur Alexander Brener stood up, blew a whistle, and began to babble about going to the insane asylum and finding fascinating music there. He moved toward the front of the stage with his partner, and they dropped their trousers—flashing their front bits to Bourriaud and Höller, their asses to the audience—while making idiotic noises and shouting “Fuck the Tate! Fuck the Serpentine!” Very ’60s, very infantile-retro—but somehow unexpectedly exciting.
Höller picked up his bag and walked out. Bourriaud looked perplexed. The Russians stayed put with their pants down. The audience sprang to life: “Get security to remove them!” “Get off the stage!” “No, wait, what that guy’s saying is right, he’s just not saying it well—who does this white artist think he is, going to the Congo and discovering the primitive happiness and music of its people?” “I’m canceling my Tate membership!” The level and intensity of debate that followed among the audience was indeed electric; who needs a speaker or even a moderator when the public gets to argue on its own?
Eventually, however, Höller was coaxed back into the building, and order resumed. Bourriaud asked polite questions about exoticism while the audience, fired up, disputed whether it was ever possible to be “just” a tourist, “just” interested in a country’s music, without a responsibility to convey the greater geopolitical picture. These were all the right questions, but I also sympathized with Höller’s simple desire to, in his words, “present a positive image of the Congo,” unimpeded by the burden of political misery; his appreciation of “crazy-paving,” blue “Primus” beer ads, and Congolese rhythms was charmingly unexpected in an artist whose work is usually marked by a scientific, almost cruel detachment.
During that talk, Höller had also mentioned a forthcoming “Prada-Congo Club” in London. The title made me flinch—do we really need more product placement?—but the venue opened in November as “The Double Club,” a name much more in keeping with the artist’s penchant for twinned experiences (such as One Day, One Day at Färgfabriken in 2006). On the first week of January this year, I went to The Double Club twice with various art pals. Inside, the club’s decor lurched schizophrenically between Congolese styling and generic Western. The main area was a large warehouse-type space housing a back-to-back bar (the “two horse rider”): Congolese shack on one side, slick neon-and-copper affair on the other. Blue Primus beer ads adorned the wall, along with other quasi-psychedelic wall paintings and a blue-tiled area containing images of Krutikow’s Flying City Revolving, the Russian utopian project Höller recently included in “theanyspacewhatever” at the Guggenheim in New York.
The restaurant continued this cultural oscillation. Tables were either well-made Western or cheap crappy plastic; the walls were either Congolese crazy-paving or filled with art, presumably from Prada’s collection (spot the Boetti). The menu was either Western (bit pricey) or Congolese (cheaper, but heavy on the peanut). The third main component of the club was a disco with a rotating dance floor (cue memories of the Revolving Hotel Room, also from the Guggenheim show, and Höller’s 1996 Flying Machine). Apparently, the music is supposed to switch between Congolese and Western with each rotation of the floor, but every time I visited it was only Western dance tunes. Still, the boozing youth of Islington couldn’t get enough of it: The floor was packed and a long line was throbbing outside. I can also report with some disappointment that the toilets are completely Western.
JUST THIS PAST TUESDAY, Prada and Larry Gagosian threw a “Prada-Congo Art Party”—for what or whom was unspecified, but it was the same night as openings for Murakami, Serra, and Twombly at the latter’s galleries. The scene was rammed to the gills with sloaney blokes and bimbonic blond Eurotrash. Normally in this situation, I spin on my heels and quit. But I was on assignment, meaning there was grim endurance ahead, of a kind I hadn’t undergone since Hans Ulrich Obrist’s last marathon. He was there, of course, along with a sprinkling of London dealers, assorted models, socialites, interior designers, fading rock stars, short artists, blah-blah (look at the photos). The guest list ran from Abramovich (Roman) to Zellweger (Renée). Everyone was ogling everyone else; heads were on constant rotation like CCTV cameras. Ninety-nine percent of this gene pool were completely unrecognizable to me, so a friend jotted down the names of various models on the back of a used envelope. “What an apt metaphor for this event,” he said as he handed it back, “they’d all go to the opening of an envelope.”
The take-home point, however, is that it was supposed to boost “art” interest in The Double Club now that it’s halfway through its six-month life span. From my experience, this is the last thing it needs, since Höller’s experiment has already been colonized by Islington locals and Afro-mafia. Even if the intended culture clash never takes place, as a restaurant/club the work seems a great success—a much-needed oddity in the backyard of Angel tube. As a work of art, it clearly beats comparable efforts such as Damien Hirst’s defunct Pharmacy and Jeppe Hein’s Career Bar. But it must also be subject to more searching questions, which takes us back to the Tate Britain talk in October. Soon after that discussion, a rebel offensive in Kinshasa led to a massive refugee crisis, and it’s now estimated that forty-five thousand people are dying every month in the Congo. (Although The Double Club is backed by Prada, some proceeds will go to Congolese charities.) Höller’s venture is consistent with his previous work and proposes an experience of cultural confrontation rather than fusion. But when backed by a major Western fashion house, is it ever possible to put two cultures together and expect experimental dissonance to ensue? And given recent developments in the Congo, is The Double Club just too belated an enterprise to have bite?