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Experience all: An Invitation into the Worlds of Carsten Höller and Maurizio Cattelan

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Carsten Höller: Animal Group. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

These are the last days to visit Carsten Höller: Experience at the New Museum, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and Maurizio Cattelan: All at the Guggenheim Museum, on the Upper East Side. The former is the most comprehensive US exhibit to date of Höller’s work, while the Guggenheim presents a major retrospective of an artist who has announced his retirement from the art world. The simultaneity of these two major exhibitions offers a unique chance to immerse oneself in the “relational art” of the nineties that both artists tackle. So if you’re interested in contemporary art, and you happen to be in New York City in the upcoming days, you’re definitely in luck. Both exhibitions close on January 22th.

Maurizio Cattelan, Novecento. Photo: Paolo Pellion di Persano

The exhibitions featuring Carsten Höller and Maurizio Cattelan could be seen as a dialogue between two friends (they are, indeed, old friends and collaborators) about the role and potential of contemporary art within society. These two artists came onto the mainstream art scene in the 1990s –alongside other artists such as Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, and Rirkrit Tiravanija– and are representative of what French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud has called “relational aesthetics”:  a type of art that challenges the traditional relation between the spectator and the work of art. Intimately related to concepts of participation, interactivity and community, the concept of relational aesthetics ultimately intends to re-imagine the notion of art itself, how it is displayed, and its relation to society.

Even if you don’t know anything about Carsten Höller ―the Belgian-born artist currently lives and works in Sweden― the title of his exhibit might give you a clue of what to expect upon entering the New Museum. Of course, the concept of experience is at the core of the very notion of art; what is at stake in the Höller exhibition, however, is a different kind of experience from the one that you would gain by observing, say, a Picasso painting. In fact, the notion of mere spectatorship is undermined, for if the sense of vision is part of the experience, it’s precisely that: a single factor in a broader, more demanding system. At the core of his work lies the idea of exploring and altering our ordinary perception and relation to space, time and ourselves.

Höller’s work might conjure thought of other Belgian artist: Renée Magritte, whose art also sought, though in a

Carsten Höller, Installation view. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

very different manner, to alter or challenge our ordinary, automated perception of reality. One of the techniques used by both artists is the inclusion of familiar objects in an environment that seems unfitting. In Magritte’s case, this incongruity unfolds in the space of the canvas, while Höller uses the space of the Museum as his canvas, occupied by objects that are solely familiar by appearance. A reality check might remind us that yes, it’s New York City and it’s the New Museum –the city’s only museum exclusively devoted to contemporary art–, but still some of the pieces on display would seem to be more appropriate to an amusement park or a science fair than an art show. Explanation abounds: Mr. Höller, formerly a scientist, left his career in 1993 to dedicate himself exclusively to creating art.

The highlights of the exhibition include a sensory deprivation pool where visitors can float weightlessly (this part of the show has already closed), a slow-motion mirrored carousel, and a tubular slide ―one of Höller’s signature installations― that runs from the fourth floor to the second and serves as “an alternative transportation system within the Museum”. Of course to use this “alternative transportation,” you have to sign a waiver.

Carsten Höller, Untitled (Slide). Photo: Benoit Pailley.

Some critics have referred to Höller’s work, and this exhibition in particular, as a kind of science experiment in which visitors play the role of lab rats. It didn’t feel like that to me; rather, the exhibition sparked my remembrance of past children’s science exhibitions where visitors were “forbidden not to touch”. For me, it was that kind of playfulness in participation that made the experience significant. In any case, one thing is certain: there’s no way to know how you’re going to feel ―lab rat, child, or a million other things― unless you experience it.

Carsten Höller, Mirror Carousel. Photo: Benoit Pailley.

The Guggenheim’s retrospective on the Italian artist Cattelan, All, is a site-specific installation that brings together virtually everything Cattelan has produced since 1989. The sense of anarchism and disrespectful gestures of the artist’s work are echoed in the physical presentation of the exhibit, through brilliant idea of hanging all pieces from the museum’s ceiling. The works are grouped together in a single installation that occupies the aerial space of the main hall. There is no linear or chronological trajectory to the retrospective, but rather a display that seems germane to the Borgesian concept of the Aleph: “a point in space that contains all other points”.

Installation view: Maurizio Cattelan: All. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
Maurizio Cattelan, La Nona Ora. Photo:Â Attilio Maranzano.

Cattelan’s work includes the use of taxidermy for a variety of creatures and lifelike waxworks: two of the most famous are La Nona Ora, which represents Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, and Him, a child-size sculpture of Adolf Hitler on his knees, in an act of supplication. Coupled with an incredibly wide range of sculptures and installations, the exhibition displays different photographs recording the most significant artistic events Cattelan has carried out throughout his career. As testimony to the artist’s continual provocations and political leanings, we might mention the formation of a soccer team composed of only North African immigrants as a response to a wave of xenophobic sentiment in Italy.

In the curatorial text accompanying the exhibition, we read: “Hailed simultaneously as a provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet of our times, Maurizio Cattelan has created some of the most unforgettable images in recent contemporary art”. Of all these definitions, prankster is my favorite: Cattelan’s work leaves us constantly unsure of whether some dark humour will emerge from one of his tragic scenes. Equally pleasant as walking the Guggenheim’s spiral staircase and discovering every piece from multiple points of view, was the act of contemplating the contemplators, and observing that precise moment in which their absorbed expressions transformed into playful and knowing smiles.

Both Carsten Höller: Experience and Maurizio Cattelan: all run through this Sunday January 22.

New Museum, 235 Bowery (at Prince Street), Lower East Side; (212) 219-1222, www.newmuseum.org.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Avenue (at 89th Street), Upper East Side;

(212) 423-3618, www.guggenheim.org