Carsten Holler’s show at the New Museum would have you participate, but leaves little to the imagination

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Carsten Holler's 'Psychotank.' ()
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Belgian artist Carsten Höller—whose tellingly named show “Experience,” his largest in the U.S. to date, opens today at the New Museum—doesn't just believe in platitudes about the transporting, transformative experience of art. He wants to bring those platitudes literally to life.

On the gallery’s ground floor is special headgear which, by dint of tilted mirrors, allows one to see the whole show inverted. On the gallery’s fourth floor, one of Höller’s signature slides (notably displayed in 2006 at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall) transports viewers in an enclosed spiral chute to the second floor. There are also a reflective carousel, a mobile composed of caged canaries and Giant Psycho Tank, a sensory-deprivation tank in which you are intended to disrobe, shower and, in the company of six or fewer strangers, float into a meditative state.

All of this—disorienting the viewer, and experimenting with his or her experience of art—is typical of that much-discussed contemporary art movement, relational aesthetics. The Guggenheim heralded the movement in 2008 with its group show “theanyspacewhatever,” in which Höller participated; his Revolving Hotel Room charged viewers a fee for an overnight stay in a makeshift suite. (The piece sold out immediately for the duration of the exhibition, making it accessible only as a spectacle of itself.)

Interventions are nothing new in contemporary art, but relational aesthetics, which emerged in the mid-’90s, claims, among other things, to make such interventions specific to the gallery by questioning, expanding or critiquing its purpose.

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However, the movement’s recent institutionalization—signified by such shows as “theanyspacewhatever” and, now, “Experience”—is an awkward and denaturing sort of apotheosis.

The New Museum requires signed waivers to use Höller’s slide and tank, and a credit card, as a damage deposit, to wear his upside-down glasses through the show. (You are also warned not to move your head too quickly, for fear of breaking them.) No bags or purses are allowed on the slide, and must be checked, or left behind at the slider’s risk.

At the press preview, access to the tank was limited to quick visits, for which I still had to wait in line. Lines during the run will be longer, likely prohibiting entry for many. And to be perfectly curmudgeonly, the slide and tank are not made for big, tall people like me; I nicked my knee on the former and had to crouch while disrobing and showering for the latter, which has slippery stairs and no space for viewers’ belongings. (Petty thieves: “Experience” is a gold mine.)

In other words, Höller's whimsy struggles on such a large, bureaucratic scale. It also has dubious conceptual impact. If the artist is after chaos and titillation he achieves them, in some measure: Experiencing the work (if you are able to) is fun in the way an amusement park is fun. “What is this supposed to do?” "What will this do to me?" and “How does this work?” are enlivening questions that have special merits in museums.

But a piece like Experience Corridor, in which the viewer is made to go through a series of experiment-like rooms (it’s as if Philip Zimbardo is looking on with a devilish grin) seems derisive; Love Drug (PEA), a vial apparently full of phenethylamine which viewers are encouraged to sniff has no discernible effect.

This is partly intentional. Höller is a blatant trickster: His absurdist Pill Clock, in which viewers are encouraged to ingest gelatin capsules that fall from a drop mechanism into a tank beside a water cooler, is fantastically coy. But some works just don't succeed logistically. Giant Psycho Tank is hardly able to, as wall text promises, “[provide] a tenebrous, out-of-body experience”; it would have to be a solitary thing to do that. Wall text also does a disservice to Double Light Corner, the large flashing-light installation on the New Museum’s second floor, which is about as “immersive” and “hallucinatory” as a busy illuminated billboard. Aquarium, in which viewers lie down and stick their heads into openings at the bottom of the titular aquarium, works only when three people occupy it on all sides. Otherwise, the fish swim away from intruding heads.

In comparison to such clunkiness, Höller's quieter works attain a kind of power. His acrylic-glass mockups for his intricate slide systems are more elaborate than anything he has yet realized, and seem better than the actual thing; in them, one sees the science behind the madness, and the comic, Huxleyan dystopianism, without the distractions of the art-world-as-playground gimmick. They are also stunningly delicate and beautiful. Höller’s mushroom sculptures on the main floor have a similar sort of perseverance about them. His interest in psychotropic drugs translates into large sculptures mimicking and celebrating their organic forms. These are, unlike most of “Experience,” objects of majesty and contemplation—and, in their appeal to the imagination, perhaps the show’s most successfully participatory works.