A good giggle but no satisfying sneeze

Fiona Zisch reviews an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre.

Integral to everyday life, our existence is arguably but a string of decisions to be taken; for the most part we are effectively unaware that with each step we make, each turn we take, each word we utter, we settle on one outcome in favour of a sometimes infinite number of alternatives. At its most elementary, however, decision-making may mean simply selecting one of two options; this is the premise of Belgian scientist-turned-artist Carsten Höller’s exhibition DECISION.

Currently showing at the Hayward Gallery, the exhibition of course opens with a decision. To enter the gallery space, we are asked to take note of a set of general guidelines printed on an information sheet and then to select entrance A or entrance B and advised to proceed with caution. Given Höller’s background as a scientist, this mode of operation – reminiscent of a laboratory experiment –is hardly surprising. His art show laboratory turns visitors into test subjects and aims to encourage interaction and reflection and to liberate from the ‘dictatorship of the predictable’.

In keeping with the binary nature of his premise, Höller forgoes the typology of a maze - which is designed to offer a multitude of choices and paths - in favour of two intertwined labyrinth-tunnels, where explorers follow predetermined routes. My companion and I decide to explore alternative trajectories. Using entrance A, I find myself in a dim, airduct-like tunnel which is pierced periodically by slivers of light filtering in through the seams of its metallic skin. At first gingerly feeling my way forward, before long, my pace up and down the narrow corridor increases. I have hardly started to enjoy the experience when I emerge abruptly - reunited with explorers of entrance B - into the main gallery space where we are confronted with a mobile of ‘flying mushrooms’, to be rotated in clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. The space quickly fills up, as more and more subjects are ejected by the entrance tunnels; we decide to move on.

The next stop on what turns out to be a string of bite-sized experience units is the pill clock. Falling from the ceiling periodically, the pills amassing on an ever growing pile on the gallery floor can either be left untouched or imbibed. We pick up pills, surely placebos, although the lack of allergy advice repudiates the science experiment scenario, and proceed. A perception altering state fails to emerge, as does some form of intellectual revelation. Making our way further into the exhibition, a row of virtual reality headsets awaits. Two separate paths through a forest– one for each eye – are mildly discombobulating, but far from challenging and fail to lead to a reconsidering of our perception of decisions taken.

Upstairs, the spiel continues and as we make our way from one exhibit to the next, the main choice we are confronted with is whether to wait our turn or decide to simply experience vicariously by watching other visitors brave the ‘flying machines’ or stumble around wearing upside-down goggles. The goggles sit loosely on your head and the mirror inside does not cover your entire field of vision, failing to truly challenge spatial cognition, unlike George Stratton’s 1890s experiment. As with most of the show, it’s a good giggle, but does not actually lead to ‘moments of not knowing’.

The installations do in fact awaken a desire to be surprised, but do not deliver, remaining superficial and failing to gratify, almost like an anticipated and never executed sneeze. The exhibition is marked by a vexing lack of friction, never quite achieving its intention of promoting contemplation, yet not ready to let go of conventional notions of what an art show is supposed to be and embracing its potential to simply be a playful and light-hearted experience. Before being - predictably - herded out through the gift shop, we leave the exhibition via its main attraction, the ‘Isomeric Slides’ which currently grace the gallery’s facade. Höller sees them as sculptures which you can travel through, but ultimately they are entertainment park flumes. The slides are paradigmatic of the exhibition; good fun, but don’t expect to be truly intellectually challenged or to question perception on an existential level.

- Reviewed by Fiona Zisch, architectural lecturer (University of Westminster and University of Innsbruck) and PhD by Design candidate at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. The exhibition runs to 6 September at the Southbank Centre

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