Guaranteed Win

From S E B A S T I E N G O Y

Jump to: navigation, search

This article was originally published in Gutmag in July 2012.

Jump in a five-story high slide, get lost in a colour fog, wander in a sinister house: this last decade saw renowned art institutions proposing works where a physical experience stands for an aesthetic one. The queues of visitors waiting their turn attested to their success and confirmed their appeal for the organisers — their authors soon became museum darlings. I believe however that the significance of these artistic strategies lies beyond their institutional consecration. In the following, I would like to reflect on their forms, to understand their specificity, the institutional context sustaining them and what their aesthetics signal for contemporary art.

In Carsten Höller’s Test Site (2006), helicoidal slides connect the five upper floors of the Tate Modern with the Turbine Hall, its ground space. The willing guinea pigs and visitors exasperated by the idea of crowded escalators can thus spin almost thirty meters down, in a ride where the exhilarating disputes with the terrifying. For the users and the onlookers, the experience leaves no doubt as to its intensity, and seems a schoolbook example of Höller’s scientist-turned-artist logic: for a work to leave the same impression in an environment saturated with art, an increase in the intensity it delivers is necessary, to compensate for the reduced attention span.

In the museum-themed park, Höller’s roller-coaster competes for popularity with a haunted house. After his selection for the Venice Biennial, German artist Gregor Schneider installed his Dead House Ur at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 2003. The 1,000 square metres hangar used for the exhibition was sealed but for an anonymous, blind door. Only five visitors could enter at a time. Behind the door, a succession of grimed corridors, uncanny spaces, two-way mirrors and rooms-within-rooms instilled an eerie, claustrophobic feeling, hammered in by the clou du spectacle: a chamber rotating on itself. Schneider’s original installation was located in a house on his family’s property. Once moved piece by piece into an institutional setting, the work turns unfortunately into a spooky decor, which contrasts the inner with the outer atmosphere. Crossing the threshold of Dead House Ur thus became a central component of the work, by which the audience acknowledges their voluntary submission to this aesthetic experience — an experience whose physicality requires them to sign beforehand a personal injury waiver.

To substantiate Test Site, Höller gladly quotes Roger Caillois and his description of a “voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind”. Interestingly, the citation comes from Caillois’s sociological essay about games, which proposes four game categories, âgon, alea, mimicry and ilinx:

Ilinx. The last kind of game includes those which are based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spam, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.[1]

This categorisation also suits Olafur Eliasson’s Your Blind Movement: the work, part of his 2010 solo show at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, consists of a space filled with a fog tinted by distant light sources of various colours. The effect is dazzling: the eye faces a monochrome field, washed from any visual asperity to rely upon. The sensations of distance, position and orientation vanish altogether. There is nothing left to recognise (in an interesting parallel, curator Ulrich Loock once remarked that Schneider’s work “is a speculation on perception without recognition”[2]).

The ludic turn in contemporary art is patent: childish forms, humorous interactions and references to games pervade the practices of Maurizio Cattelan, Erwin Wurm, Gabriel Orozco, Cory Archangel and others — “playful” became a must when describing artistic practices. Yet Caillois’s insight and adequacy are remarkable here: the viewer’s vertigo comes indeed entirely from the perceptual disruption operated by Your Blind Movement, which then appears as a sophisticated blind man’s buff.

These works are thus specific in that they propose an intense, perceptual experience, with which the viewer engages only voluntarily. They reflect our society’s general appeal for ilinx, aptly exploited by economic actors who sell experiences in bulk — to mention a few: bungee-jumping, Chernobyl visits, guided tours of favelas — thereby fostering the so-called “experience economy”.

That cultural institutions participate in experiential consumerism is not surprising. Indeed, cities now compete on a global level to attract new taxpayers and tourists. A key asset in this competition is a city’s cultural offer, as it becomes a prime differentiator for seasoned travelers and professionals, whose wealth is of particular interest.[3] Which metropolis does not have its biennial or its contemporary art museum envisioned by some blue chip architects? But these institutional players cannot rely solely on artistic tourism to be financially viable. More, in the shadow of an unprecedented wave of populism, public sponsors push for a literal interpretation of the educational requirements they place on these institutions: the art shown should be accessible, if not enjoyable, to steer away any accusation of elitism. For these institutions, turning to “experiential art” and its crowd-pleasing production thus kills two birds. Further, the torment of the tourist — the awareness that his gaze can only meet a postmodern pastiche, is alleviated by these artworks: the immediacy of a physical experience and its innocent playfulness replace the diffuse inauthenticity of a mass culture, and the guilt associated with its acceptance.

In its new, appealing attire, the aesthetic experience naturally becomes the pivot of a monetised exchange. The marxist hypothesis of commodification seems here to be valid in full (this hypothesis has nevertheless been criticised for being a meta-narrative of hegemony which does not tally fully with reality[4]): the aesthetic experience, previously alienated from the individual by forceful labels on museum walls, exhibition tours and audio guides, now gains an exchange value — fun is guaranteed! It is all the more ironic that art, the birthplace of manufactured experience, saw its primary concept appropriated by capitalism through the general aesthetisation of existence, to monetise it, a phenomenon now mirrored in art by a commodification of the aesthetic experience itself. The irony did not escape the artists mentioned above, since they propose, in the tradition of the art of cynical reason[5], ambiguous forms which satisfy both the requirements of mass culture and, along the line of a critique by exposure, the demands of its detractors — playing in fine a game they cannot lose.


  1. Caillois, R., Man, Play and Games. 1961, Glencoe (Illinois): Free Press of Glencoe: p. 23. Available from: Translation by M. Barash from the original version: Les Jeux et les Hommes. 1958, Paris: Librairie Gallimard.
  2. Loock U., The Dead House Ur. Parkett 63 (2002): p. 143, 148
  3. Stallabrass, J., Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction. 2004, Oxford: Oxford University Press: p. 10, 17, 25.
  4. Williams, Colin C., A Commodified World? Mapping the Limits of Capitalism. 2005, London: Zed Books: p. 270-271.
  5. Foster, H., The Return of the Real: the avant-garde at the end of the century. October Books. 1996: MIT Press: p. 99.
Personal tools
S E B A S T I E N  G O Y