Triggered by Emptiness

Jun 26, 2018 3:06PM

  ‘A giraffe walks up to an acacia tree and feeds on its leaves. The assaulted tree gives off signals that are carried by the wind to the next tree, which receives the message and quickly begins to produce bitter flavours. When the next giraffe walks up, it will sense the acrid, repellent odour and move on. The giraffes are aware of this, so they walk against the wind, in the direction of the still unwarned, delicious trees. This kind of thing happens all the time in the world of plant neurobiology.’ – Carsten Höller

From the exhibition "The Beautiful Escape" at CFHILL, Feb 17th – Mar 14th 2018

What do we really know about animals? What do they experience, and what do they think? Our brains are incapable of truly knowing what an animal thinks. These questions are taking the limits of our understanding to their extreme.) As Carsten Höller sees it, there  is no greater mystery than that of the mind. It is unlikely we will ever understand what a mind is. We are at the edge of that which is comprehensible in our universe, and this is the place that Carsten Höller’s art calls home.  

Höller has always related to animals in a very special way. These organisms, of varying complexity, with extremities similar to our own, with clusters of nerve cells forming brains much like ours, and with irrepressible hearts continuously pumping life into  the world, bringing us to life and putting us into motion. Before Carsten Höller became the artist he is today, he was already well along the way to a career as a biology researcher. The creatures that had caught his interest were some of the most modest insects out there: aphids, a sort of plant lice. His doctoral thesis, which Höller received from the University of Kiel in 1993, was an investigation into the role played by scent in the interactions between the plant lice and their natural enemies.    

Carsten Höller
Giant Triple Mushroom, 2014

From the exhibition "Ten by Ten", CFHILL, May 5th – 19th 2018

This obsession, as he refers to his interest, with biology has not faded as the years have passed, but his path took a dramatic turn when he decided to become an artist around the age of 30. His explanation for this change of course was twofold: on the one hand, he was frustrated with the inconceivably laborious procedures involved in making even the tiniest of scienti c advances, and on the other hand, he was becoming increasingly preoccupied with entirely different aspects of nature’s great mysteries. He soon realised that the borderlands between scienti c thought and artistic expression were rife with untrodden ground, and that his skills would allow him to remain right there, in the cross-sections of these disciplines, and undertake experiments that his former colleagues would never have accepted. He soon abandoned his career as a researcher in favour of other pursuits.  

His transition occurred at an unprecedented pace. In 1997, he and artist Rosemarie Trockel, his partner at the time, were asked to contribute a new, large-scale piece for Documenta X in Kassel. Their collaborative project was by far the most widely discussed artwork of the exhibition: A House for Pigs and People (Ein Haus für Schweine und Menschen), (1996- 2000). In an 18th century royal conservatory, which had undergone extensive repairs and renovations since the Second World War, the audience stood face to face with a herd of about ten pigs, inside a space divided    by a one-way mirror. While the humans in the audience sought eye contact with the pigs, all the pigs could see was their own re ections. This was a communicative system  lled with noise, dead-ends, existential loneliness and isolation. A monument to the incomprehensible.    

Carsten Höller
Giraffe, 2018

The natural-size yellow bi-resin giraffe calf which is being shown for the  rst time at The Beautiful Escape, is Höllers most recent addition to a series of animal sculptures he began working on back in 1995, at a stage when he still had hopes of being able to combine both of his careers. Over the years, he has made a Delphin (Dolphin) (1995), an Elefant (Elephant) (1998), a Rhinoceros (2005), a Reindeer (2009), a Red Walrus (2011), and even a Snake (2013), and now, this naturalistic Giraffe (2018). The material is a rubber used in medicine, which is particularly suitable for highly detailed recreations of structures. It retains each irregularity, each miniscule fractal pattern of tissue on a snout, the sensitive skin  of the belly, and the subtle wrinkles of the face. Touching the sculpture with your  ngertips produces a sensation much like that of touching living skin. Sometimes, he adds whiskers, cloves, and tail hairs, as well as realistic glass eyeballs, originally intended for humans. These animals evoke emotions in the viewer that are ampli ed by the fact that the animals Höller has chosen to reproduce are all either new-borns or very old.  

Their physical vulnerability and their expressions of Besinnlichkeit (a word we decide is best translated as “presence of mind”) causes these animal sculptures to trigger caring and protective instincts. Spending time with animals, even fake ones, can also trigger the release of biological substances that calm us and make us happy. Just like pressing a button. Carsten Höller himself calls them “trigger sculptures”.    

When you look at animals, you can tell that they feel like we do, and that they experience the same reality as we do.

‘An important experience for me was this time when the staff at the gallery–I think it was in Cologne, in 1996–called me to tell me that they had just woken a woman who had fallen asleep next to my sculpture of a tired old dolphin. She had been fully sober, and in good health. I like artworks that are incomplete, that require participation.’

‘I like creating objects that can trigger something in the viewer despite being completely meaningless. There is nothing rational about the way they affect people, it’s just a reaction. A reflex. Artistically speaking, these objects are void of all meaning, but they still carry powerful references to the incomprehensibility of what being an animal is like. That’s what I’m after. When you look at animals, you can tell that they feel like we do, and that they experience the same reality as we do. But they are so different from us that we really have no way of understanding what it is like to be a bird, or a pig. Could we ever understand what it is like to be an animal, or a human being? No, it’s impossible. My work deals with the incomprehensible. We have a limit. There is something behind, above, and below it, and perhaps we can approach it, or gain a better understanding of it, by experiencing artworks such as these, or by observing animals. By being triggered by emptiness.’