Student Ambassadors Program Overview

Carsten Holler: Art or Commodity?

Five tubular metal slides spiralling from the upper floors of Tate Modern to the ground level Turbine Hall, on the surface Carsten Holler’s 2006 installation Test Site looks like a crude play on the waterslides children hurtle down at swimming pools. Yet, like most work of the contemporary period, such conclusion ignores the rich criticism that rests beneath its playful exterior. A powerful commentary on the spectacle and sensation of sliding, Holler’s Test Site offers an investigation into the unification of art and play and poses important questions concerning the spectacularization of art in our post-Fordist, experience economy.

A series of spiralling metal slides installed within Tate Modern’s gallery space, Carsten Holler’s Test Site, in its simplest form functions to transport visitors from alternating levels in the Turbine Hall. The top curve of the slide is clear to render the sliders visible to those looking on, and shadows are projected on to the walls opposite to momentarily record the speed at which visitors slide down them. On closer inspection, though, Holler is artfully eliciting a shift in the protocols of human behavior in the gallery space and asking the viewer to consider the impact of these playful interruptions to our everyday life.

Carsten Holler, Test Site (2006), Tate.

Introducing frameworks conventionally reserved for play, Holler challenges our perception of art spaces most immediately by taking a participatory approach. That is, Holler shifts the gallery from a space of viewing to a space of doing by giving the viewers the option to not only slide from one space to another, but to make the active decision to slide. More than this, Holler asks us to reflect on the affective qualities of these frameworks and their lasting outcomes. Speaking to Tate he explained: ‘The state of mind that you enter when sliding, of simultaneous delight, madness and “voluptuous panic”, can’t simply disappear without trace afterwards.’ What Holler suggests here is that the faculties of the slide can create a sense of “inner spectacle” that shifts our perception of our immediate environment and has the potential to renew our understanding of the outside world.

Carsten Holler, Close up image of Test Site (2006), Tate.

Yet, Holler does not reject viewing altogether. Those that choose not to slide become an important component of the event. By viewing the work, they function as spectators, not just viewing for themselves the spectacle of those sliding, but contributing to the “inner spectacle” of the slider. In this sense, the work becomes relational, drawing attention to the space, the people within it, and the relations between them.

“A sculpture that you can travel inside,” Holler’s Test Site is part of a much larger enterprise: namely, the mobilization of the slide as a fast, safe, inexpensive, and energy-efficient alternative to current modes of transport. As the name suggests, Holler is here utilizing the public context of the museum space as a site to investigate the possible effects of sliding; how it might alter the way we perceive and engage with our surrounding environments; and the possibility of the slide becoming part of the architectural fabric of our everyday lives. What Holler sees in Test Site, then, is a kind of prototype or test to assess the value of the introduction of slides into the city, a context enabling the shadows on the walls to become the virtual projection of slides into the cityscape.

‘A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.’

Willy Wonka

Trained as a scientist with a doctorate in biology, Holler exercises an investigative approach, which stems, in large part, from his scientific education, but also from a book he read in 1993 upon his exit from the world of science. A text by R Gordon Wasson, a former JP Morgan investment bank employee, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1972), deals with the study of hallucinogenic properties of mushrooms and their anthropological history. Seeing hallucinogens as comparable to early childhood or dreams in respect of producing a “different kind of rational,” Wasson’s theory becomes a potent context for many of Holler’s works, and perhaps explains his use of slides as an unconventional but valid alternative to travel.

Holler has now been dubbed the “Willy Wonka of contemporary art” and, across his career, has created a series of hallucinogenic and playful installations including Ball House (1999), a room filled with balls for the viewers to play in; Upside-Down Mushroom Room (2000), an installation featuring large-scale revolving mushrooms hanging from the ceiling of an upside down room; and Upside-Down Goggles (2009-11), a participatory experiment into visual distortion through goggles.

Carsten Holler, Upside-Down Mushroom Room (2009-11). More images.

All Work and No Play?

But is Holler’s claim for the slide as a physically and mentally transportive tool enough to sidestep its function as entertainment? With the growth of our neoliberal, post-Fordist economy, many have recognized art as reflecting the economic attributes of our society, and Holler’s Test Site is no exception. Relational, spectacular, and efficient, Holler’s work seemingly mirrors the shift in production from object-based commodities to experiences, and underscores the rise of workflows dependent on information and communicative technologies.

More than this, speaking in her seminal text Artificial Hells, Claire Bishop problematizes participatory art as a whole for its reductive use of the active/passive binary. Drawing on Jacques Rancière, Bishop claims that attempts to “reactivate” the viewer play into troubling understandings of the working class as only able to engage with art physically (as opposed to, like the middle class, cognitively), thus perpetuating a “prejudice by which working-class activity is restricted to manual labour”. The implication is not that participatory art should be shunned, but instead looked at critically for its aesthetic rather than ethical attributes.

In this way, Carsten Holler’s Test Site is a multifaceted work which poses lots of unanswered questions, many of which extend well beyond, we can assume, his intentions, and are yet to be resolved: is this progressive or regressive? Is this work aesthetic or commercial? What we can be certain of, though, is that this is a multidimensional work bringing to light the ways we engage with the art space and context, and one which critically engages with the debates of our time. 

The Art Story related content: Relational Aesthetics, Installation art, Playing with the Boundaries: Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes

Written by Hattie Stubbs, part of the third cohort of Student Ambassadors for The Art Story. I am a final year undergraduate student at the University of Exeter. Currently studying Art History and Visual Culture, my interests are Contemporary Art from the 1960s onwards, with a particular focus on social practice art and performance. I am also passionate about representations of sexuality, technology and the body in art, and how queer theory enlightens our understanding of these practices. On graduating, I hope to obtain a master’s degree in Art History and/or Curation and pursue a career in co-curatorship, working alongside artists to create engaging and educational workshops and events.