Carsten Höller

Kunstverein in Hamburg

The windowless room on the ground floor of the Hamburg Kunstverein is lit by few light sources, so when Carsten Höller put up a large round sign with the inscription “Glück” (Happiness) at the entrance to his recent installation, he created a very particular mood. Intriguing if fairly unobtrusive music filled the room: this was the sound track from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), which Willer used as the accompaniment to a video that depicted a small child and a man, boisterously romping. Spontaneous feelings of warmth for this child were prompted by what biologists call the “infantility pattern.” The gawky movements and, above all, the special proportions that in young animals as well as small children cause the head to appear large in relation to the rest of the body are proven triggers for the emotions, which Höller (who holds a degree in biology) manipulated when he captured the daughter of his dealer, Esther Schipper, in a video, or depicted her as a bird in flight in a photocollage—both works that depend on the viewer’s emotional involvement.

Following the creation of a number of brooding and ironic works that dealt with themes including the torture of children and attempts at population control, Willer has now shifted his focus toward the theme of happiness. He is dealing strictly, however, with “small” pleasures, pleasures that he investigates on the premise that they play a functional, evolutionary role in furthering reproduction.

Whether one subscribes to this thesis or not, the exhibition at least fulfilled its claim to entertain and thoroughly engage the viewer. Höller laid out an itinerary covering several different experiential possibilities: a “flying machine”; a chute inside which viewers can use an ultraviolet lamp; a massage chair; and an aquarium into whose recesses visitors could stick their heads without getting wet. In the aquarium piece one could get an extremely close, relaxing view of the placid fish.

Like the projects of Mark Dion and Fabrice Hybert, other artists exploring the crossover between natural history and art, Holler’s pieces stress process and the viewers’ active role in the work, many contesting rational, scientifically verifiable theses that, when applied directly to art, quickly become less credible. So if, as in Höller’s present exhibition, the installation resembles an amusement park geared toward the highest possible entertainment value, the works are more critical than they might at first appear. While even naïve visitors might have a hard time summoning the expected joyous response with the aid of machinery like the chute and the flying machine, the more low-key works in this show—for example, the video and the aquarium, which stress less sensational experiences—were more effective in an art context. The latter piece in particular could be seen as an object with strong sculptural qualities. Where this installation most marked a coherent extension of Höller’s method—its combination of natural science and artistic goals—the rich possibilities of his approach become evident.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.