Carsten Höller: Artist's Portfolio
(La Fábrica, 2012)
Roger Tsien, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work with green fluorescent protein, actually wanted to be an artist; when asked why he didn’t pursue it, he replied, “lack of talent.” Since its discovery, GFP has become the prototypical media for transgenic art, familiarized by a green fluorescent rabbit named Alba that was designed by the artist Eduardo Kac. GFP is a product of nature that would exist regardless of Tsien’s studies; but if Kac hadn’t designed Alba, she wouldn’t exist. Is this why science—the most creative pursuit mankind has yet conceived—is generally considered uncreative? While art, often creative in only the most literal sense (i.e. a thing is being created), is considered creative by its very definition? A chemist may devote a lifetime to the conception, synthesis, and purification of molecules that have never existed anywhere else in the known universe and only be considered an artist in that same abstract sense that could describe a skilled orthodontist. While an artist who robotically follows the dominant trends—repeating “transgressive” ideas about gender, sexuality, community, and, dare I say it, youth—is considered creative regardless of whether their work represents the creation of anything novel. I won’t fall down a “What is art?” hole, but I think it is in examining the tenuous division between artistic and scientific creation that a viewer best understands what makes Carsten Höller’s work so exciting.
And Höller’s work is exciting. During the winter months while his retrospective Experience was on show at the New Museum, hoards of people photographed themselves next to his sculptures and set them as their Facebook user pictures. They made snarky comments about the exhibition while gazing up at advertisements on the L train; they exchanged anecdotes about the presence or lack of nudity in his sensory deprivation tank before asking whether or not it had been closed down by the Department of Health (it had). The exhibition was talked about at length, and it did exactly what the critics in their analyses claimed it did: altered consciousness, begat childlike wonder, whimsy, fantasy, and so forth. Yes, it did all those things.
Yet a scientific analysis of Höller’s work seems strangely absent. His career as a research entomologist is treated as a fun fact of his biography, never fully integrated into interpretation and criticism. It is through the scientific eye that things like Höller’s tri- and bisected fungal chimeras suddenly begin to make sense. Anyone who has gone mushroom hunting knows that all good mycophiles carry a knife (usually a curved folding blade with a stiff bristled brush on the base for dusting away soil). The knives come in handy because one of the most important features in mushroom identification is gill attachment, and the best way to examine how the gills meet the stem is to bisect the mushroom through its vertical axis. What seems a strange abstraction in the gallery is a perfectly mundane sight on a mushroom foray.
In botany and zoology there has always been the question of how to preserve or recreate biological forms for posterity. Taxidermy is limited to preserving the gross morphology of vertebrates. Ethanol and formaldehyde preservation tends to discolor, distort, and chemically disrupt organs and soft tissue. Pressed and dried plants may maintain some of their microscopic characteristics but are otherwise dramatically altered upon dehydration. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the first moves toward true biological verisimilitude were made with the dermatologic wax moulages of Jules Baretta and the astonishing glass flowers of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.
But what about fungi? Taxonomically situated somewhere between animal and plant, fungal tissue is notoriously difficult to depict graphically. It is for that reason that field identification is something of an oral tradition, passed down from mycophile to mycophile at forays and festivals. Learning mushroom taxonomy from a photograph or watercolor is tricky and sometimes impossible. The variations in size, color, and texture are virtually endless, some fungi disintegrating the same day that they emerge from the soil, others submitting to the ravages of worms and insects or changing colors in the sun. Using combinations of polyester, polyurethane, wire, and fir wood, Höller has done a remarkable job in capturing the fungal essence with impressive anatomical verity; seven of these have been reproduced in Carsten Höller: Artist’s Portfolio. He doesn’t rely on cartoonish abstractions (viz. Murakami); in fact, one could visit his exhibitions with an Audubon field guide and recognize most of the species (Cordyceps sinensis, black morels, giant puffballs, innumerable Amanitas) with minimal effort. In “Giant Triple Mushrooms,” a dotted stem bolete, fly agaric, and ascending brackets of chicken mushrooms are fitted together in such a way as to accentuate their morphological diversity. Though displayed in a gallery, the sculptures would be equally appropriate as pedagogical tools at the Museum of Natural History.
Somewhere between GFP and Alba, the mushroom species would still exist if Höller hadn’t modeled them, but they wouldn’t be recognized as art, and that is one of the things that defines scientific creation: modeling the features of the natural world so as to better understand how they fit together.