Are You Experienced? Carsten Höller’s ‘Experience’ at the New Museum

Organized by Massimiliano Gioni, with Gary Carrion-Murayari and Jenny Moore, “Experience” is the first of two New York exhibitions that feature important, now midcareer, European figures whose humorous sculpture and interactive work might be seen as related (the second exhibition, by Maurizio Cattelan, opens at the Guggenheim later this week). The relational-aesthetics artist, an itinerant art teacher/curator persona, is often without a studio. Both Mr. Höller and Mr. Cattelan can be seen in the same context as French artists Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, and New Yorkers Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick.

If relational aesthetics has a patron saint in the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, with his political and participatory gestures, Mr. Höller is its nerdy uncle (he holds a doctorate in agricultural entomology), ready with the drug references but ultimately a little removed, a little sinister, a little crowd-pleasing without being able to resist sly meta-commentary, as he performs his magic tricks.

Yet if Mr. Höller’s works claim to transform the passive viewer into the active participant, the cerebral and visual into the bodily, this dichotomy is false. You sign away your privacy when you sign these forms. The exhibition makes the viewer into another kind of object to be observed. The spectator becomes a spectacle.

As a museum- and gallery-goer, The Observer has participated in relational aesthetics. We have eaten the Thai soup, tasted the triangles of candy, taken the posters, danced on the floors, slept in the galleries, read the books in the book-reading-rooms and watched the films in the film-watching rooms.

Yet if the traditional work of art addresses the viewer as a thinking, aesthetically critical being, much of relational aesthetics, including this show, addresses the spectator in a more familiar mode: that of the consumer. Even if you aren’t paying anything beyond the price of museum admission, the exhibition encourages you to consume the sculptures as “rides,” to wait in line to go again and again, to accept the experience “as is.” There is no question that Mr. Höller does what he does well. Not to sound like a spoilsport, but there is value to reflection, to consideration rather than participation, and this is what is lost here. “Experience” turns the museum into a funhouse, at a cost. What we lose is the critical faculty, which, in a way, brings us full circle: Mr. Höller’s is an exceptionally fun exhibition to visit, and a particularly difficult one to review.

editorial@observer.com