Leafing through the Serious Art Critics’ reactions to Carsten Höller’s huge fairground of a show at the Hayward, I felt optimistic, smug even. “Old fuddy-duddies,” I thought. Yes, that’s it – they’ve forgotten how to have fun! Love-in, hippy me mulled over my kindly utopian ideas about how art should be democratic, how wonderful it is to have the wee kiddie-winks enjoying art just as us cerebral grown-ups can. Sadly, I’m now about to agree with the bunch. They’re not really just world-weary and po-faced, they’re right: the show’s really not all that after all.
Named Decision, the show features the slides Carsten made his name with, a site obvious to anyone passing by the Hayward gallery. They snake and glisten down the side of the building in possibly the savviest bit of art PR we’ve seen, promising fun and frivolity, but with a serious undertone. Does the descent represent death, perhaps? Does it show us how to reconnect with fear and physicality and childhood? I loved them at the Tate Modern, and I loved them at the Hayward, but alas they weren’t quite enough to rescue such a huge show that could have been so wonderful.
The exhibition is a relentless conveyer belt of such large gestures, but none as successful. Entering the show involves one of the titular “decisions”: we must choose door A or door B, both of which introduce a dark, undulating steel tunnel that shoots us blinking into the first room. It’s a show you must work for – no innocent bystanders here – and next we find ourselves pushing a large contraption formed of flimsily constructed white and red mushrooms. It’s charming in a way, in all its Heath Robinson-lite arms and spins. It also, of course, continues what’s become something of a trend for the Hayward – art for the Instagram generation. Find me a person with internet access who didn’t see at least 5,483 images of people in Martin Creed’s balloons and you’ll know what I mean.
The issue with the show isn’t necessarily that it’s democratising and that kids are running around enjoying it (there are tonnes of kids, and we’d recommend sending them to Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s Barking soft play area if parents fancy a day out in the not-yet-artisan-bakery-packed depths of east London). It’s that much of it seems poorly executed, and it’s very hard to fully suspend disbelief and really lose yourself in the spectacle. The Oculus Rift-type virtual reality of The Forests doesn’t immerse you in a woodland scene but make you feel slightly drunk; a similar sensation to that of Upside Down Goggles. This piece is a headset with mirrored lenses, and sees visitors stumbling about in the sculpture terrace. Again though, you can’t fully immerse yourself in the process as it’s all too easy to sneak glances around it, and instead you feel mildly woozy and slightly bored. According to Carsten, the piece – based on American scientist George Stratton’s late 19th Century experiments – “help[s] us to see the real world.” Instead it’s a little like how I imagine it feels taking ketamine at a gallery full of Time Out readers.
I really don’t want to sound moany and spoiled – the show’s fun, and a lovely morning out, and I really do love art that democratises and doesn’t take itself too seriously and that kids can enjoy without mummy having to cart them off to a well-meaning lady helping them make their own Matisse cut-outs. But exiting the (very enjoyable) slide and the end and shuffling off my little helter-skelter sack, I feel a little empty. Art doesn’t always have to be challenging and cerebral, but after a series of fairground attractions I felt we needed something else. It’s not even the saccharine overload of too much candy floss or too much fun, it’s that the gimmicks didn’t deliver what they fully could; the idea was there, but it never came to a fully-realised climax. I had taken one of the pills in the Pill Clock piece, though, so maybe it wasn’t a placebo and had made me moany and spoiled. Maybe it hadn’t. “It’s like Pat Sharpe’s Fun House", I overheard a man in one of the many queues say. Not necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps not a great thing either.
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