Carsten Höller with Måns Månsson, Fara Fara, 2014, two-channel video installation, color, sound, 13 minutes.

Carsten Höller with Måns Månsson, Fara Fara, 2014, two-channel video installation, color, sound, 13 minutes.

Carsten Höller

Carsten Höller with Måns Månsson, Fara Fara, 2014, two-channel video installation, color, sound, 13 minutes.

The Belgian-German artist Carsten Höller is best known for large-scale installations that invite the viewer to participate in or activate them. But his recent exhibition “Videoretrospective with Two Lightmachines” showed another side of his work. The complex and layered show started with Light Wall IV, 2007. LED lamps went rapidly on and off, accompanied by hard stereophonic sounds of clicking, thus evoking a disorienting stroboscopic effect. According to the artist, this disconcerting welcome was intended to put the visitor in a dreamy mood that would allow her to comprehend reality in a different way—but it achieved more of a sense of irritation.

After this false start, the rest of the exhibition seemed to possess a reassuring stillness—although appearances can be deceptive. Fara Fara, 2014, which Höller created with Swedish filmmaker Måns Månsson, was the first immersive installation and screening in an exhibition consisting of nearly thirty videos, which were sometimes poetic, often provocative or funny, but always captivating. In Lingala, “fara fara” means “face-to-face” and refers to a musical event extremely popular in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, best described as a battle between two bands playing together on two different stages in a musical marathon that can go on for hours. The band that performs the longest is the winner. Höller filmed a fara fara between bands led by megastar leaders Koffi Olomide and Werrason. The famous yet controversial singer Papa Wemba—he was convicted of human trafficking—acts as a narrator and introduces and comments (in song) on both bands. Through the simple but effective trick of placing the same kind of plastic chairs in front of the screen that we see in the scenes on video, Höller succeeds in making the viewer a participant of this fascinating spectacle. But in an accompanying exhibition guide we read that the subtitles that purport to translate Papa Wemba’s words say something different from what he is actually singing. Thus Fara Fara becomes a metaphor for miscommunication between Africa and the West as well as an exciting visual and musical experience.

Quite different was the most recent installation, Double Neon Elevator, 2016. Here we see some kind of cage with green neon lights like horizontal bars flashing rhythmically on and off to create the illusion of movement. Standing in this box of light, one experienced a fascinating feeling of going up or down—a sort of full-body trompe l’oeil.

A room containing three works from the 1990s best showed how cleverly subversive and humorous Höller can be. Jenny Happy, 1993, is a performative video installation in which a young woman in a white dress on a swing looks at a weird black-and-white video of a naked man and woman making love in a clumsy way, sometimes with almost mechanical movements. The couple are drinking vermouth; after a while they begin to loosen up and slowly start to dance. The film gradually goes into color, and the couple seem to have red eyes. According to an accompanying text, the woman on the swing in front of the screen had red eyes, too (thanks to tinted contact lenses), though I could not see this. But the combination of the surreal screened scene, watched by a live performer who was watched by us, created an uncanny sense of dislocation.

Projected just beside Jenny Happy was Punktefilm (Dot Film), 1998, an animation in which twenty-four white moving dots in a black void gradually come together to suggest an outline of a dancing couple. One dot after the other vanishes in the void until there is only dark nothingness. But it was One Minute of Doubt, 1999, that best showed Höller’s brilliantly obtuse attitude toward things. In a car labeled THE LABORATORY OF DOUBT, the artist drives in circles around an intersection as other cars pass in all directions, while a big loudspeaker on the roof of the car issues instructions to “spread the doubt.” Less spectacular than Höller’s installations, his video work has the same power to confuse and enchant.

Jos Van den Bergh