Hot art for a cold day: SOMA at Hamburger Bahnhof

People are talking about Carsten Höller’s exhibtion, SOMA on at Hamburger Bahnhof,  Berlin’s Museum of Contemporary art.  Höller is a trained biologist who found himself in contemporary art. Here he constructs a hypothetical experiment which aims to synthesise the mythical potion SOMA, the potent hallucinogenic drink referred to in the ancient Hindu Vedas, which promises divine enlightenment. The source of constituents of SOMA have been debated on and off in scientific and scholarly circles with one theory drawing parallels between Vedic descriptions and reports of the use of the fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita Muscaria in Siberian shamanic rituals. Legend has it that Siberian shamans used to drink the reindeer urine after it had consumed the mushroom and would subsequently hallucinate.

Höller’s installation fills the vast entrance hall at the museum, with each side of the installation a mirror image of the other. Six live reindeer, twelve canaries, four mice, and one fly reside on each half. Fridges on each side are filled with Amanita Muscaria.  The viewer is led to believe that the population of one side is being fed the mushroom, while the animals on the other are not and therefore form a control group. It’s left to us to try to detect differences in behaviour and to determine which animals we think have transcended onto a higher plane, as well as to consider the influences (if any) of the other variables-the fly, the canaries and the mice – on the outcome. For €1,000 per night the enthusiastic (and wealthy!) viewer is even invited to spend the night in a ‘hotel room’ constructed on a viewing platform overlooking the exhibition.
In our group, opinion was divided. The installation is certainly a spectacle and left us thinking and talking. Questions raised though, were not so much about the divide between art and science or issues of access and transcendence. Rather there was talk about the stress on the reindeer and whether overnight guests were getting to sample some reindeer urine. Are we lightweights or is it simply that the worth of such a large scale undertaking is a little flimsy?

The exhibition is on until 6 February 2011.

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