Is That Birdsong?

September 2014

Carsten Höller's alternative nature  
Approaching art-making from a science-of-plants-and-animals perspective, Carsten Höller creates rather unusual works that refer, either directly or indirectly, to one or the other of these life forms. Particularly fond of the sounds made by birds and the feelings felt by plants, he incorporates these aspects into the pieces he conceives, often by way of a elegant model thereof. Many of these models henceforth take on the status of a sculpture or an installation and become situated in the wide expanse of a museum space, where a certain lesson about the natural world is decidedly on offer. DAMN° confronts Höller in Vienna, in just such a space.  
It is easy to talk about birds with Carsten Höller. He knows the name of every sort, and can recognise, by sound, which one is flying round. Birds are also part of his artwork. In his show Leben (Life) at the Vienna art space Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), he has installed two large birdcages, each containing a pair of bullfinches – in one, the Nordic variety, and in the other, the smaller, southern-European version. The cages are connected via weighing-scales that indicate which of the two is slightly heavier. During the opening of the show, the birds made their first attempts at building a nest. It was the start of a process that the artist aims to influence, and that could end in the creation of new song lines. A bird - artist collaboration.
Born in Brussels to German parents, Carsten Höller spent his childhood in Belgium, moving to Kiel, Germany when he was 17 to study agricultural sciences, remaining there for 11 years. In the early 1990s, though, he began working as an artist, and gradually dropped his scientific commitments. During this time, Höller showed his work in museums all over the world, including the New Museum in New York and the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. One of his signature works is a slide, something we all know from childhood, built in multiple versions in different exhibition situations; for instance, it might be extending between different floors of a building. These slides serve both as sculptures and models. The excitement (and fear) involved in using a long, curved slide could make a difference to an everyday experience, so the artist believes. And that is what he is looking for: experiences that break with ordinary logic and habits.
DAMN° met the artist in the garden at TBA21, where two of his mushroom sculptures have been 'planted'. Soon, the conversation turned to the plants and insects he used to research as a scientist. Such as the Aphid. "There are not many animals that reproduce without males. The Aphid does. The female gives birth to its own twin. They are, in fact, cloning themselves." Höller was part of a research group that studied the enemies of plants like the Aphid, and also the enemies of its enemies, and so on. "From this, you can deduce information about communication. (...) Plants can cry for help," says Höller, "they produce a very specific smell. If you understand such communication structures, you can also communicate with them. This means you can protect plants through information, instead of through killing." 
In Vienna, Höller installed works that invite the active involvement of the visitor, such as the Elevator Bed. The luxurious circular bed situated on a pedestal, can be raised-up to 3.5 metres above the floor. People can book it for a night. If they do so, they're able to wander-round the exhibition space after opening hours and brush their teeth with a dream-enhancing toothpaste designed in cooperation with a Viennese pharmacy. The toothpaste is on view in the show, but can only be used by guests who have made a reservation for the bed, at a charge of between 120 and 490 euros per night. The goal here is apparently to offer a different experience. The same goes for the High Psycho Tank, a plastic tank that looks like a cabin, partially filled with saltwater. Two visitors at a time can go inside, undress (mandatory), lie down, and float in the salty water. According to some of the assistants, it's a very relaxing experience, especially when floating for several hours. 
During this conversation with the artist, our recording device broke down. "Maybe it is more interesting now", Höller remarks. He sees disruptions as opportunities for something unexpected. And he uses this opportunity to raise the issue of language when communicating about art. "Language is organised serially, but maybe in the exhibition it is about something else." We continue the conversation about birds, since birds are a recurrent motif in his work. Bullfinch Scale is accompanied by a tune that comes from a loudspeaker. It's a love song that is whistled. In theory, these bullfinches could adopt the tune and whistle it. They are the only species of bird that is able to do this. But this can only happen if they reproduce, since only young bullfinches can be taught to sing such a melody. So the result of Höller's experiment would only be attained in the longer term, after the exhibition closes. 
Is there anything for human beings to learn from the birds? we ask Höller. Since they have fascinated him since childhood, it seems he should know. "No," he says, "the only thing you can learn is that they are incomprehensible. A lot of their behaviour we don't understand. This shows our limitations as human beings. (...) The bullfinches don't sing to defend their territory, they maybe just sing because they enjoy it." Höller tells us how, in some parts of Germany, there used to be a trade in young bullfinches that were taught by humans to sing popular songs and then sold for big money. 
The Bullfinch Scale is connected to a love story from the 18th century in which an Austrian ornithologist, Ferdinand Johann Adam von Pernau, fell in love with a woman who wouldn't respond to his wishes for a courtship. He made several attempts, serenaded her under her window, but she kept saying No. Then he took some young bullfinches and taught them to whistle the love song he had played for her. It took six to eight months, but some of the birds learned it perfectly. He released those birds in the park and invited the woman for a promenade. When she heard all of them singing this love song, it at last touched her heart. 
Talking to Cartsten Höller brings us unexpected views on life, and the possible exchange between different species. In this regard, the title of the show, Life, fits well. But the visit to Vienna leaves the writer divided, since walking through the exhibition doesn't produce the same effect and excitement that the conversation did. Höller's pieces have a strange and unfamiliar appearance when you first come upon them in the space. Good for a surprise and a smile, but in most cases, not so fascinating to look at and to engage in for a longer period of time. Seeing the Elevator Bed, for example, and the possibility of spending an expensive night inside the exhibition, is not that interesting. Just as looking at a toothpaste that might stimulate your dreams is not, if you aren't actually using it. Also, viewing the two pairs of birds that are part of a long-term experiment feels paltry in relation to the stories the artist has relayed. The works tend to become illustrations. Somehow they do not surpass the 'spectacular' initial impression and don't provide the further intensity that you might expect from this show. Maybe Höller's works should be regarded as models by a creative researcher that could function well outside the context of an art exhibition, within functional architecture and real life situations. ‹
Hoher Psychotank , 2014. (High Psychotank) Photo: Attilio Maranzano © Carsten Höller / Bildrecht, Vienna.
Gimpelwaage, 2014 (Bullfinch Scale). Photo: Attilio Maranzano © Carsten Höller / Bildrecht Vienna 2014.
Aufzugbett, 2010 (Elevator Bed). Photo: Attilio Maranzano © Carsten Höller / Bildrecht, Vienna 2014.
Carsten Höller. Photo: John Scarisbrick.
This article appeared in DAM46. Order your personal copy.