Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Unilever Series: Karsten Höller

Karsten Höller installation at the Tate Modern; Karsten HöllerTate Modern

A bit late with this one as it closes on 15 April but it's well worth a visit if you get the chance and can stomach the queues.

A friend and I visited on Friday evening, late night at the Tate, and so appropriate for those who work weekdays or are seeking an alternative to the usual drink-and-puke Friday evening. I arrived first to get a spot in the queue and reached the front well before he arrived and so had to start over again. Once we were both on-site (it's not possible to pick up tickets for anyone not in the queue--very annoying), we were each able to get a ticket for slides on Level 3 and Level 5. As the numbers suggest, these are progressively higher up, daunting for those with a fear of heights, which both of us have.

With plenty of time on our hands (even showing up at 18:00 may not get you a booking before 20:00. Ours were for 20:30 and 21:00/21:30, respectively), we took advantage of the lovely weather to sit by the Thames drinking and chatting and watching people stroll along the shore line at low tide until it got too cold and we returned to the warmth of the Tate.

Availing ourselves of the permanent exhibitions we moved up level by level and by Level 5 we could hear the shrieks of people using the slides, adding an aura of anticipation/anxiety to the proceedings. With hours to wait, we had built up quite a lot of nerves by the time we visited the Level 3 slide. Looking down into the vast Turbine Hall below, it seemed quite a drop.

Although the slides have several turns, it is still a daunting prospect. Once you have collected your slider (a long piece of linen like an apron to sit on and to trap your feet), you position yourself at the entrance to the tube and wait to be given the signal, much like a luger or downhill skier. I was sweaty with nerves by this time and once I let go I was quickly sucked down the tube, jolting the whole way. I emerged some, I guess, 30 seconds later, quite shaken up and with legs like jelly.

Now imagine the same experience but two floors up on level 5. By now my mate and I had visited the cafe for some liquid courage. As a teetotaler, mine was a hot chocolate but nevertheless, we were both still goading each other. He had said he almost bit his tongue on the first go-round. "I bet it would look really cool if I got a picture of you with your tongue bleeding," I offered helpfully. "I hear people who don't wear elbow protectors have had their limbs severed," he commented, as I waited to go on, sans elbow protectors.

Down I went, and the experience was multiplied, but I was rather preoccupied with trying to get my camera to work so that I could record the movement. Sadly, the on button just wouldn't work and so I emerged, almost sliding off the rails, and trying to get my shaky legs to work again at the other side. I just got the camera on as my friend emerged, tongue intact. We had done it and neither of us had screamed.

In truth, the slides are quite enjoyable to watch, as well. The structures fit well within the Turbine Hall, making use of its impressive height and their gleaming silver and glass spirals echo the former industrial function of the building as a power house. While I still hold a fondness for Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project (2004), I would say this is the best interactive use of the Hall since the Tate Modern opened.

And as for the meaning? Well, Höller is quoted as saying he wants to explore both the spectacle and inner spectacle of sliding, of watching people perform this ritual and performing it yourself. In that, he has succeeded. And, as the queues attest, people of all ages seem drawn to this idea.

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