A Long Way Down:
Carsten Höller

© David Levene

Words by:

The Hayward is about to shut for two years.

The brutalist icon, lurking on the Southbank, has, in the past decade, leapt into the public psyche off the back of a number of big-name, immersive, blockbuster shows.

Jeremy Deller, Martin Creed and Pipilotti Rist are all standouts, as well as a David Shrigley show that contributed to his Turner Prize nomination, and Light Show, a group exhibition that broke records with its turnout.

Carsten Höller’s Decision is the temporary conclusion to this series before the gallery’s refurbishment. Chances are you’ve already seen coverage of it somewhere. The Isomeric Slides – two 15 metre spiral slides descending from the gallery’s glass pyramid ceiling to its entrance level – have been stuck on the front of the gallery, ensure maximum exposure. Indeed, this was the busiest press viewing I’ve been to. Plus, the moderate drug references and another installation-cum-ride on one of the sculpture terraces are enough to bring this firmly into the crosshairs of the Time Out types: a good old day out, with enough going on to keep kids and adults entertained. A show of the type that Hayward has, over the last 10 years, pioneered.

The man responsible for the populist-to-some, inclusive-to-others programming is Ralph Rugoff. He’s been the director of the Hayward since 2006, and definitely has an agenda. “There’s a part of the art world,” he tells me, “that’s very nervous about distinguishing itself from popular culture, which it sees as compromise, without integrity. Unfortunately, that can result in a kind of inbred intellectualism, or almost a puritanical attitude about pleasure, where if art is pleasurable it’s too easy, that art has to be difficult, or challenging.”

It’s certainly true that among certain circles, Höller’s type of show is discussed disparagingly. The idea that Art is a Serious Business, generally speaking, goes unchallenged. Artists who do offer dissenting voices are largely absorbed into the institution (which doesn’t love laughing at itself, but does love ‘transgression’, as long as it looks good), or shunned.

This sort of investigation begins to raise big questions about the difference in interest between public and private institutions. Which are probably the subject of another bit of polemic to this one; suffice to say, the sneeriness that inevitably accompanies crowd-pleasing shows like this isn’t necessarily motivated exclusively by an idealistic sense of intellectual integrity.

© Ela Bialkowska, OKNO studio

What Rugoff has set out to explore, as a curator, is the idea that art is a necessarily cold and joyless enterprise; as he sees
it, contemporary art can lapse into a kind of self-righteousness, one where the audience’s engagement is assumed, rather than earned. “If you don’t catch people’s attention, why should they then pay attention to your work? Why should they then try to get into the more nuanced levels and layers of the work? There’s a lot of art that leaves people cold. It just hangs on a wall, expecting you to admire it.”

Decision adds an emphatic full-stop to Rugoff’s rejection of this assertion, and to the corresponding narrative that has guided the Hayward’s programming up to this point.

As a show, it’s nothing if not attention- catching. Beyond the twin, double-helix- like slides that provide an exit, there’s the Two Flying Machines on the sculpture terrace, Decision Corridors on the way in, and Upside Down Goggles on the other terrace. Downstairs, Two Roaming Beds (Grey) engage in a slow, synchronised dance with each other around the lower galleries (for a cool £300 you can inhabit these overnight, exploring the exhibition in your sleep), and the Pill Clock drops a high-end gurner from the ceiling, every three seconds, for you to decide whether or not to take.

Almost all the works on display require audience participation of one kind or another – the “decisions” of the title referring most specifically and obviously to the decision surrounding whether or not to physically engage.

As Rugoff would have it, participation constitutes what could almost be seen as a type of collaboration with the artist; indeed, the plans for the gallery’s regeneration even take this into account. The roof of the upper gallery will be removed, bringing natural light directly in. The lower galleries, “this concrete bunker,” will not be changed. The resulting tension between the two environments, Rugoff hopes, will act as a “way to keep people engaged. You really want to get people to look actively, and it helps if you’re altering the context, and not just the content.”

The idea of active looking, of facilitating an engagement that transcends the learned conventions of art appreciation, is key. “For some reason, a lot of us come to art shows as if we were going to an exam. You feel that there’s an answer, and you don’t understand it so you start to feel anxious. Then you read the wall label, and most wall labels are horrible; there’s no humour to them, no wit. They’re telling you what this is about, and it’s not really learning any more. It’s about absorbing information, which is not the same thing as learning. To learn, you have to ask questions.”

Whether or not Höller is on quite the same tip in this show is up for debate. Rugoff’s ideas surrounding the audience and their interaction with an exhibition are playful, he sees learning – getting something out of a show, essentially – as an almost creative act, where the artist and their works function as a catalyst for a new or expanded viewpoint. Höller’s motivations for, and thoughts behind, audience participation are more oblique.

 

In the blurb he’s quoted, “It’s possible to experience the work through other people, to see it from the outside, or to just contemplate it.” People are required by the artist to activate the work, but it’s less clear whether their function extends in any way beyond that. It’s as if the decision at the heart of it rests on whether to be participant or audience. In this, though, lies a fairly amicable compromise: for the non-participating audience, this is an exhibition of contemporary art, and for the experience-chasing participant, this is an unusually cerebral assortment of rides and activities.

That said, these are kind of extreme binaries; for most, this show will fall into a grey area somewhere in the middle. Decision Corridors, the intimidating and jarring tunnels one must choose between to enter the show, each labyrinthine, dark and shuddering, demand participation because there are only two of them and they are the way in. Similarly, it takes a real party-pooper, or moderate-to-considerable physical incapacitation, to decline leaving via the Isomeric Slides. The stuff in the middle – the pills, the mushrooms, the vibrators, the beds – is the stuff which will be observed or activated according to the inclinations of the individual visitor.

This gels with Rugoff’s ambitions, and operates successfully within the parameters he has set over the years at the Hayward. “This idea of your involvement, it’s not always a physical environment. It’s really psychological, more than anything else.”

This show maybe doesn’t comprehensively succeed in everything it sets out to do. Whether participant or not, there are elements to it that feel like novelty, while other parts (though outstanding, especially the film Fara Fara) feel a little at odds with the rest. Having said that, the exhibition appropriately signifies what it is Rugoff, and the Hayward, have been striving for, “I think what you want is really good quality spectacle, and really good quality thinking.”

In this, I’m weirdly reminded of the band Mission of Burma. Whenever they had to choose between volume and sound clarity, they unhesitatingly opted for volume. With this exhibition, Rugoff has stuck to his guns. This show aims to titillate everything it can, from intellect through to adrenal gland, and in doing so earn the audience’s active look. It combats the idea that art should always and exclusively be difficult or challenging. As Rugoff says, “great art is difficult and challenging and entertaining, all at the same time,” and while this isn’t quite great, it certainly shows you what he means.

Decision runs at the Southbank Centre until 6 September

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