My boys like to touch. And when it comes to art, they’re too often told they can look, but not touch. I get it – art needs to be intact and preserved so its owner can protect his financial investment or sentimental chattel, or so future generations can have an opportunity to observe the piece as its creator likely intended. I personally think there is beauty, there is historical reference or, at the very least, there is an intriguing story, to fragmented art pieces. Consider Kintsugi or the Parthenon sculptures. Or maybe Rembrandt’s Danae and Night Watch, or Duchamp’s Fountain. There are tales of sieges, of madness and obsession, of acceptance and change, of vandalism. But I imagine I’m in the minority with my affection for the broken. And the account of an energetic, curious, possibly rambunctious child damaging an art piece may not be as fascinating as the narrative of a demented geologist attacking a work with a hammer while yelling “I am Jesus Christ” a la “Pieta”.
For the most part, my little fellas understand they can’t touch. They’ve been to countless museums and galleries, and when those moments occur when they can barely resist the temptation to glide their fingers over a texture, climb on a sculpture, or make hand shadow puppets to interrupt a film projection, there are usually cordons, invigilators and their mama to help them practice self-control.
So when an exhibition like Carsten Höller’s “Decision” at Hayward Gallery comes along, I am a happy (read: more relaxed) mama. Touching is allowed, even encouraged. There’s interactivity, there’s physicality. And very appealing to me, there is the observation of my children and others intermingling with the works, sometimes laughing, sometimes embarrassing themselves, sometimes suffering negligible injuries, and most times questioning. Questioning what they are supposed to do or whether this is art.
Right before entering the exhibition, we were handed guidelines highlighting the physical and experimental nature of the show. One piece has a minimum height and maximum weight requirement, another requires you leave all bags, coats and loose items in the cloakroom or locker, and for some of the works, visitors are urged to refrain from “using” them if they have an existing condition which might be exacerbated.
Decision Corridors (lightened for viewing purposes)
There are two alternative entrances. We – two mothers, two seven-year-old boys, and one two-year-old boy – chose the risqué one, a work called Decision Corridors. It is a pitch-black (except for miniscule lights which take time for your eyes to actually see once they become used to the darkness), confined corridor that twists and turns. Höller describes this work as an architectural intervention which “delays the entrance to the exhibition and prolongs the transition from the world outside the gallery to the topsy-turvy world within.” I was somewhat nervous because, truth be told, I was carrying my strong, heavy, autistic two-year-old son Lumen whose reaction to different scenarios cannot always be predicted. I was wrong to be nervous. Lumen loved the piece. In my arms, he glided his fingers across the walls of the corridors, laughing. He didn’t wriggle, he didn’t try to jump out of my arms. The other two boys were justifiably disoriented, nervous but pretending not to be, bumping into each other, and shouting each other’s names when they became separated. This was my favourite piece in the show, this indoor, covered, inky hedge maze which does not cater to claustrophobics. It asks one to lose his reliance on sight and instead engage his senses of hearing and touch.
The second work to stir our imaginations was the timepiece, Pill Clock. A single red-and-white capsule drops from the ceiling to the gallery floor every three seconds, the interval of time Höller suggests is the “length of time in which it is possible to create the impression of presence”. Amassing in a rising pile, the pills provide a visual indicator of the passage of time. All of this was lost on the boys. They saw a pile of pills they were allowed to touch, pills which they could put in their mouth and swallow should they choose. A water fountain is conveniently provided on the wall next to the pile for those who choose to ingest. My older son Enlai asked what was in it, what the flavour was, what its effect would be, whether it would hurt him now or damage him later, whether I would be trying a pill. I told him that I would not be trying a pill. He asked if I was scared, and I responded that fear was not a factor, but that I was not a pill-popper, and that I wasn’t keen to swallow something whose exact makeup I wasn’t aware of. We then discussed hallucinogenics, addiction, pharmaceutical companies, headaches and vitamins. And he decided he would take a pill. My mom friend decided she would, too. Her son didn’t. For us, this piece was more about decision than time.
We then happened upon a large room, a small portion of which was used to offer a long bench, the entire length of which was used to supply about 10 seats with corresponding headsets and earphones. In these headsets and earphones was The Forests, a 3D, dual-screen video piece which splits our vision in two as one eye is guided to the right around a tree along a path, and the other eye to the left. Höller intends for the work to be an experiment in seeing double, in looking at two things simultaneously. My mom friend and Enlai commented that the soundtrack was haunting and the images confusing. My little fella Lumen had no interest in engaging with the piece, but he and I both appreciated that he was allowed to run around the sizeable space without interrupting anyone’s experience of the art as they all had headsets and earphones on. The invigilator smiled at me, perhaps sensing that this boy gives his ol’ ma a good workout chasing him around.
Intrigued by the sound of music, we walked a short distance to another room and were now immersed within Fara Fara, Lumen’s favourite piece. It was a dark room, with visitors sat on the floor between the two screens which, seemingly in unison, depicted the music scene in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fara Fara means “face to face” in Lingala – a Bantu language with over 10 million speakers – and is a musical competition which was formerly used as a means of resolving disputes. Congolese music, according to Höller, is “very different in structure” from Western music, zigzagging between different styles. For me, there is something about percussion and its infiltration into one’s bones. Lumen danced the entire time. He held his hands up to me, and I picked him up, and we danced together. My mom friend danced, and the two older boys were embarrassed by the three of us. I imagine Höller was only trying to share the Fara Fara world, but in so doing, he opened some of our ears, and awakened our hips and shoulders.
After walking upstairs, we had to make the decision whether we wanted to wait in an hour queue to experience Two Flying Machines, a simulate flight offering the opportunity to soar above the traffic of Waterloo Bridge while those in the queue, those looking out the window, and those below, look on. The machines, described as a “combination of carousel, paraglider and motorbike” were designed by Höller to allow contemplation. The “rider” contemplates his surroundings, but the observer of the rider contemplates the rider and his reactions to his surroundings, as well as other observers’ opinions of and comments on the rider. The boys had neither the patience to queue or to wait for their moms to queue, so we made ourselves content watching the other adventurers in the air.
Instead, we played around with The Pinocchio Effect, a combination of vibrating devices and drawings which guide you to hold your nose with your fingers on one hand while using the other hand to place the vibrating device on one of your upper arms. Höller based this piece on an experiment by a psychologist who discovered that it was possible to modify the way we perceive the size of our nose by rousing certain muscles. The artist says his own device works by influencing proprioception, a fancy word for body awareness. Proprioception, considered one of the seven senses, is an unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation which allows us to locate our bodies in space, and to be aware of where our limbs are in relation to one another. When you are the mother of an autistic child, you know a thing or two about proprioception as many people with autism have difficulty processing everyday sensory information and tend to be hyposensitive or hypersensitive, meaning they may stand too close to others or bump into things, or in the case of the latter, have difficulty with manipulating small objects, such as buttons. Yes, my little Lumen liked this artwork.
Dice (White Body, Black Dots)
Body parts still feeling as though they were vibrating, we then opted to experience Half Mirror Room and Dice (White Body, Black Dots). Reminiscent of a ballet studio sans the barre, the mirror was designed to create a double of the gallery and everything in it. It has a certain appeal to the narcissist and the voyeur. While Lumen jumped in front of and made faces in the mirror, checking to see if his reflection would follow, the older boys writhed through the holes in Dice. As if a jungle gym created by a Yatzhee aficionado, Dice fulfilled the older boys’ need to climb, squirm, and hide. Only two are allowed in Dice at a time, and the boys took full advantage of this, saying they may just camp out overnight in this square tent with circular windows. I recall seeing this piece at Frieze 2014, and just as it seemed there, it is a component of a distinctive playground, one in which Höller is “using other people’s kids in order to fill the sculpture with life”.
Experiencing the Upside Down Goggles
A few steps away, we grabbed a pair of goggles hanging on a wall and listened to the invigilator’s directions before being lead to the outside terrace. This piece, Upside Down Goggles, was the older boys’ favourite. Goggles on and perplexed as to which was the right way up, they attempted to reach out to one another, to high five each other, to walk around the terrace without hesitation. I told Enlai to look up at Höller’s Adjusted Hayward Sign, and because the sign depicts the words “Hayward Gallery” upside down – which would mean it was displayed right side up when viewed through the goggles – he said he thought his goggles weren’t working. I watched one woman walk around the terrace with such uncertainty, she only took about three steps. I watched one grown man fall over another. This was some Laurel and Hardy stuff, and I was enjoying laughing at the expense of others trying to make sense of an upturned world.
Adjusted Hayward Sign
And then, ladies and gentlemen, came what many consider the pièce de résistance of the exhibition – the Isomeric Slides. Not dissimilar to his Test site in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall some years back, Höller constructs slides which ask us to look at them as both artworks and functional objects, and then to consider whether we’d like to take advantage of their functionality as a means to exit the exhibition. Höller says the spiralling transporters introduce “a moment of playfulness” to the gallery’s brutalist architecture. We all decided that we did indeed want to indulge in a bit of play. The little munchkin didn’t meet the height requirement so he wasn’t allowed, even on my lap. My mom friend and the two older boys went ahead, my son running excitedly up the stairs, which are visible to everyone in the room. I could hear shouting and nervous laughter, from the top of the stairs all the way down the slide. As soon as I knew they reached the bottom, Lumen and I took the lift down to meet them. On the way out, I may have done some begging to a couple of different invigilators to please let me back in the gallery to take a ride down the slide myself once I put my son in the care of my friend. When I saw the three slide-riders, they were laughing and seemed energised. I enthusiastically ran back in, and the begging paid off as I was let through. Up the stairs, and the slide minders told me to slip my legs through a potato sack-like cloth appendage, cross my arms over my chest, grab the top of the slide and catapult myself down. Heading south, my belly tickled and, unexpectedly, screams and laughter came from my mouth.
Whether you can call the pieces in this exhibition art or not I think is irrelevant. Call them what you will if you desire a label, and while searching for that label, enjoy yourself and enjoy your children. Keep an open mind. Engage your senses and your curiosities. Experiment and laugh. And be grateful that artists like Carsten Höller exist.
The exhibition is open until 6 September. For more information on the exhibition, click here.