Carsten Höller advocates the virtues of confusion in two major Denmark exhibitions
The German artist (and erstwhile scientist) is staging complementary surveys at Copenhagen Contemporary and the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art Aalborg
Naturalist and geographer Stepan Krasheninnikov first observed a bewildering phenomenon in 1755: Russian soldiers in Siberia ingesting Amanita muscaria mushrooms (also known as the fly agaric) were gripped by hallucinations, heightened senses, and other strange and violent impulses. According to Siberian folklore, the red-and-white mushrooms were used for recreational as well as shamanic purposes.
Some two centuries later in 1977, Danish chemist Povl Krogsard-Larsen began synthesising dozens of muscimol derivatives, eventually identifying a potent psychoactive molecule in the fly agarics. The resulting compound, gaboxadol, has been produced in permanently mind-altering quantity by artist and mushroom maestro Carsten Höller for his solo exhibition at Kunsten Museum of Modern Art Aalborg – one of two major surveys currently open in Denmark.
The Kunsten exhibition, titled ‘Behaviour’, is a joint endeavour with Copenhagen Contemporary, where the art centre in the Danish capital’s industrial neighbourhood Refshaleøen is staging its own Höller exhibition: ‘Reproduction’. The shows span Höller’s entire career, ranging from his earliest works (including his infamous Killing Children series from the 1990s) to new, site-specific installations. It’s the Belgian-born artist’s first foray onto Danish soil – and it’s as perception-bending, befuddling, and ultimately amusing as we’ve come to expect from the former scientist.
The serene architecture of the Kunsten – the only art museum ever designed by Finnish icon Alvar Aalto – provides the perfect folly for Höller’s artistic experiments. Here, Höller has drawn more than 110 artworks from the museum’s collection, all dated between 1935-1956 and by artists hailing from the abstract expressionism and CoBrA movements, two benches, each emitting the scent of his mother and father respectively that have been reconstructed using samples of their clothing. It’s a testament to the triggering power of smell – his mother’s heady perfume could easily feel like it belong to yours.
Mushrooms are a mainstay of Höller’s practice, and here his sculptures are dotted around amongst other signature works, such as Upside-Down Goggles (1994-ongoing) and Expedition Rucksack (1995/2019). In one corner of the museum, red and white pills are dutifully spat out every three seconds. from an unseen mechanism attached to the ceiling. Höller has provided a water cooler and paper cups nearby for daring visitors, though quite provocatively won’t reveal the contents of the pills. And for a truly immersive experience, visitors can book an overnight stay in Höller’s Revolving Hotel Room (2008) on Airbnb.
The Copenhagen Contemporary exhibition injects slightly more fun into the proceedings than its Aalborg counterpart, albeit with a dystopian slant. Wooden hoardings initially make the show seem entirely inaccessible; after being funnelled down the sides, we eventually end up in a sort of fairground for the end of the world. A pair of carousels revolve with an impossible sluggishness next to a mushroom sculpture perched on a rounded bottom – an invitation for visitors to try, unsuccessfully, to topple it over. (Höllers scented benches, too, are on view in Copenhagen).
Still, one can’t help feeling like the oblivious subject of an experiment. And it was a challenge to reconcile the shows as two halves of one whole. But, as Kunsten chief curator noted, ‘A common thread in both exhibitions is a universe located somewhere between cool analysis and engaging, immediate sensory experience.’ Not that Höller offers any answers, instead proposing possibilities.
‘My objects are tools or devices with a specified use, which is to create moment of slight confusion or to induce hallucinations in the widest sense. That is why I call them “confusion machines”,’ the artist told Hans Ulrich Obrist in a 2001 interview. Confused we are, but according to recent findings by researchers, the uncanny feeling of being confronted by something that doesn’t make sense can be a good thing. We’ll defer to the scientific experts. §