Although by the time this goes to press, the exhibition will have run its course, and this article thus embarrassingly late to the proverbial party, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write about Carsten Holler’s Decision. The summer’s blockbuster had been divisive to say the least. The fairground gimmickry of giant slides and flying machines has ensured that the show fell foul of a somewhat exhausted reception by critics searching for ‘real, serious art’ on the Southbank. Apparently galled by the queues of people reaching round the side of the Hayward Gallery in search of some fun, Holler’s appealing interactive works have been the hot ticket for the public last summer, but also attracted the ire of visitors with a more professional mandate.
The exhibition was also a last bow out before the Hayward closes for a two-year hiatus for renovation work, and was a suitably dynamic choice. The show spilled out from the very building: commuters walking southwards across Waterloo Bridge had the pleasure of gleeful ticket holders slowly paragliding around in a circle above their heads since June, and the dual slides which provide the means of exit wind down the side of the Brutalist brickwork to shoot people off at Belvedere Road.
I took my best friend Louise along for her birthday treat. She’s a fun loving gal so I knew she would be up for the ensuing madness Time Out had promised us. We were told to check in our bags “unless of course you want to go on the slide”, which is a kind of Pope/Catholic question. And so, because I suppose we are now part of ‘generation selfie’, we spent most of the exhibition with our iPhones stuffed uncomfortably in our bras because Louise wanted to get a charmingly Trainspotting-esque picture of herself with a pill in her mouth (from the notorious Pill Clock, but more on that later).
In order to get into the exhibition, one had to make a choice between two entrances, the Decision Corridors, both of which opened with a sign instructing you to ‘hold on to the sides of the walls’ in case you fall over. To go in left or right is the first of Holler’s ‘decisions’ which you are forced to make. We chose the left door, which had the lonelier looking security guard because everyone kept going into the right hand side. Whilst we were reflecting on our upstanding moral character, we were plunged into labyrinth of pitch black. Suddenly robbed of sight compared to the fresh white light of the gallery lobby, the only thing you could see in the darkness is the green ring of the veins behind your eyes, an experience Louise compared to being ‘in hell’s opticians’. Initially a man of science, Holler enjoys playing with taking away or obstructing sight as a primary sense in approaching an artwork, and a lot of Decision featured riffs on this presumption. With sight out of the equation, you are only really aware of the tinny footsteps of those grasping about around you in the dark, and finally you emerge, blinking, in front of a mobile made out of magic mushrooms.
There were a lot of lines in Decision, and a lot of waiting around. Decisions, it seems, are intended to be mulled over in quite some depth. Every work that requires some form of human interaction, naturally with the volume of visitors in the gallery, was preceded by quite a lengthy queue. The longest of these was for the aforementioned Flying Machines, adventure holiday style contraptions that hoist visitors just slightly over the A301. We were told, after being weighed to check that we were under the incriminating 100kg limit, that it would be an hour and a half wait. Joining punters at the end of a queue in the blazing sun up there on the roof, I don’t think Louise and I have ever been so indecisive in our lives, and after a lengthy to-ing and fro-ing exchange of “it’s up to you” “no, no, totally up to you I don’t mind”, we decided that, as we wouldn’t be up there until way after tea time, we would unfortunately give the gift of flight a miss this time round. As we retreated back into the gallery, the security guard jested “given up already have we?”.
Which brings me to another stickler about Decision, which a friend of mine had warned me about before our visit. “There are a lot of security guards about telling you not to touch stuff” she sighed, “and a lot of height restrictions”. These are two things that do put a damper on an exhibition of which its primary draw and mission statement is its interactivity. Holler apparently intends to finish his works by getting people involved with them. I saw a lot of people getting told off: for taking too many capsules out of the steady mountain of Pill Clock, for being too tall and old to climb in the dice, for spending too long with the upside down goggles on.
Another unfortunate aspect is that less bombastic works tended to get swallowed up in the frenzy of people trying to get on other things. The fat bellied snakes and pictures of the insides of eyes are side lined as intermission pieces that people stared at whilst they were in yet another queue, rather than being pondered in their own right. Or, they ended up being so perplexing in their odd and unattractive stasis that people dismissed them altogether. Louise’s take on Wall Painting with Aphids for example, an ode to the Belgian artists passion for the self-reliant reproductive skills of asexual insects: “Oh that bug shitting out another bug? Hideous”.
The Forests, the tantalising virtual reality experience adjacent to the shitting bugs, was a strange journey through a forest at night. The graphics weren’t brilliant, the sort of standard you would expect from a Street Fighter console game at an airport terminal. The video itself was very unsettling, and it lulls you into the complete opposite of a false sense of security, as you keep expecting a screaming demon child to pop up like in those fright videos that went round when YouTube first came out. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but as the show is over now, nothing actually happens, apart from you walk over some twigs, and the video disconcertingly ‘splits in two’ as Holler seems on a one-man mission to make everyone a little bit nauseous along with their helping of fun.
Finally, I’ll mention our ten minutes donning the upside-down goggles. Up there on the roof, we were perilously unable to fathom the distance between ourselves and the tiny wall protecting us from just stumbling over the edge onto the concrete below. The only anchoring thing in our sightline was Hollers re-orienting of the Hayward Gallery sign. “I’ve lost all faith in gravity” said Louise, too afraid to move. We had to walk around the edge of the platform with interlinked arms like novices on a skate rink.
Thoroughly disorientated, we ended our visit via the winding slides. My potato sack unfortunately came a bit unstuck from under me, so I quite literally tore off of the bottom of the ramp into the laps of two exhibition staff, who were apparently delighted: “we’ve been waiting all day for someone to fly off the end like that” they said.