James and I are decidedly different people. We can and will debate over absolutely anything and everything. He may have bested me in the battle of best Neutral Milk Hotel song, but I was crowned winner in our match on the worth of slam poetry. “Stairs vs. Escalators” and “Saturdays vs. Sundays” ended in ceasefires. Last summer, we legitimately argued over how often we argue.
Although the two of us may not see eye-to-eye on everything, James and I were equally excited to visit the New Museum’s current exhibit, “Experience” by Carsten Höller, together, even if we both admitted that the main source of our excitement was photos of a two-story slide on the museum’s website. As we read on the exhibit’s website before our trek to the Bowery, “Experience” is a “form of experiments designed to test the limits of human sensorial experience through carefully controlled situations.” The exhibit is described online as something of an interactive journey for the audience, carefully constructed by Höller to distort viewers’ sense of space and time.
After signing waivers we both didn’t read, our “Experience” began on the fourth floor of the museum, a floor dedicated to motion, as I was later informed. The elevator doors opened to an enormous mobile of cages, containing particularly vocal canaries, hanging in the air.
“Why?” I asked. I’ve never been fond of birds.
“Fuck da police,” James responded.
I looked to the small labels beside the mobile for answers, but they offered only a list of materials used and the name of the organization assuring the health of the canaries. I looked up at the birds, wondering if they had the answer. Nothing. And so, my search for meaning throughout the exhibit began.
I immediately began to take note of every single detail the exhibit presented. When James and I rode the Mirror Carousel (2005), I carefully weighed how each piece rotated and what was revealed and concealed by the angle of the mirrors in each revolution. I even had the crazy idea to count how many seconds it take to go around, hoping that the number would offer some solution. Beside me, James took pictures, swayed around a bit in his seat, and experienced the slow glide of the carousel. I noted how it felt to walk through the tunnel, regarded how fish look under flashing, hallucinatory lights from inside a fish tank, and speculated as to what floating in a sensory deprivation pool might feel like.
We discovered a mountain of white pills next to a water dispenser, tucked away in a nook of the staircase. When a security guard with a secretive smile hinted that we were to gain newfound superpowers from the white pills, I immediately downed mine and began asking her questions about what other museum-goers thought of the piece and how the pill dispenser was engineered. James had trouble swallowing and chewed his pill slowly. Apparently, it tasted fine. And when we were all done, we briefly stumbled through parts of the museum again with goggles that flipped one’s vision upside-down. I had spent the entire day trying to compare “Experience” to other museum exhibits, where elements of each piece could be carefully constructed to form a Bigger Picture. Höller’s only piece that didn’t inspire analysis was Untitled (Slide) (2011). Despite the necessary safety helmet, the fifteen second ride down the slide was slide was a slice of childhood and riding a rollercoaster without a seatbelt rolled into one.
My moment of clarity finally came as James and I left the New Museum. I had been so deeply wrapped up in my quest for Meaning in “Experience” that I had failed to notice the differences between our experiences. James started gushing about how much fun he had had and how excellent the exhibit was. I interrupted him to ask, “But didn’t it bother you that there were no explanations for anything?” He liked the exhibit because there were no explanations. “A very fuck-da-police exhibit – no inherent meaning to anything.” Maybe that was the beauty of the exhibit. Not that the exhibit was inherently meaningless, but that the meaning was not prettily packaged and lying under the viewer’s nose. Instead, Höller’s journey of self-experimentation and distortion of the senses allows viewers to discover their own meaning in the exhibit.
In the end, “Experience” was an experience worth having – just not for the reasons I had expected.