Carsten Höller’s New Lisbon Exhibition ‘Day’ is a Meditation on Darkness + Light

That German artist Carsten Höller is an actual scientist – he holds a doctorate in agricultural sciences from the University of Kiel – has certainly informed a great deal of his work. But there has also often been that sense of his being something of a provocateur, building imposing large-scale installations that seek to indeed provoke conversation about the socio-cultural – to wit, his Amusement Park (2006) at MASS MoCA, or his fantastical Flying Mushrooms (2015).

But what to say after nineteen months of such a fatal pandemic, which has claimed more than 1.3 million lives on his home continent of Europe? (He was born in Brussels, and now resides in Stockholm.)

His new solo exhibition at Lisbon‘s MAAT museum seems to be suggesting an answer to that very question, actually. The deceptively simply titled Day collects 30-plus years of Höller’s works which play with the oppositional forces of darkness and light – both of which have been recontextualized during this long and still continuing coronavirus health crisis. (We’ve been deprived of light by having to stay indoors, and denied darkness by way of the on and off shutdowns of all nightlife.)

Two new pieces are being shown for the first time ever: Lisbon Dots (2006/2021) is made up of 20 spotlight projectors – it looks like a slightly ominous, outsized version of Twister – which actually track viewers’ movements, and offer a kind of “reward and punishment” competition, pitting one visitor against another (A less deadly Squid Game?); and Light Wall (2021) greets museum goers at the entrance with a hyper-sensory display of flickering bulbs, set at the hypnotic frequency of 7.8 Hz – which is the global electromagnetic resonance of the earth, and also the human brainwave frequency while in a state of dreaming.

Conceptually, gallery lights have all been darkened, allowing the works their purest expression of self-illumination – giving the exhibition a sort of meditative quality, within spaces entirely bereft of unwanted distraction. But it’s not without a sense of fun, mind, as one installation titled Two Roaming Beds is available to rent by the evening – and as you sleep, the beds move around at random, tracing a new pattern of light each time that will be visible in the morning.

Curator Vicente Todolí explains, “The exhibition meanders around light and darkness, through the nude belly of the building, creating a flow of energy that guides the public through a multiplicity of sensorial experiences.”

Certainly the universal quarantines forced us into a reevaluation of our relationship with most of our senses, which are just now readjusting to a totally new notion of what is normal. What the MAAT and Höller seem to be offering is a chance to reorient ourselves to our ideas of darkness and light – a kind of sensory therapy, if you will.

So once again, it’s art to the rescue.

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