This article was originally published in Domus 949 July/August 2011
Carsten Höller sees double. Since the beginning of his career, this artist, who was born in Belgium, grew up in Germany and has now settled in Stockholm, has played with symmetrical repetitions and mirror reflections. His entire body of work is informed by the spectre of the double – identical sculptures, one next to the other, twins talking to each other from two video screens, gigantic installations that are exactly the same. At the start of his career, Höller designed a series of works with the German artist Rosemarie Trockel, actually doubling himself up in another creator. Similarly, there was the legendary Paris exhibition in which Höller and Maurizio Cattelan presented a series of identical works, removing all differences of style or ownership.
The exhibition Japan Congo is Höller's new experiment. This itinerant show debuted at Le Magasin in Grenoble, travelled to the Garage in Moscow and will open in Milan this November. With this project, the artist presents a selection of works from the Pigozzi Collection, which is largely renowned for its significant acquisitions of African art since the early 1990s. As the show's title suggests, however, Höller's interpretation of the Pigozzi Collection unexpectedly concentrates exclusively on Congolese artists, showing their pieces alongside a series of works by Japanese artists, representing a lesser-known side to the collection.
The space Höller has designed for the exhibition recalls the experimental environments of his installations – a series of corridors that seem inspired more by a maze of tunnels for laboratory guinea pigs than the spaces of a museum. On one curved wall, crammed together like pictures in a salon des refusés, there is a series of canvases and paintings by African artists. On the wall opposite, in contrast, there are works by Japanese artists. The juxtaposition appears so arbitrary that it flips over into its opposite, becoming a kind of classification that, in some mysterious way, seems to reveal secret connections between two very distant worlds. But this is actually one of Höller's typical strategies. The artist often relies on a rule, or a system of rules, and follows them diligently, to the point of revealing the complete absurdity of any form of organisation or classification.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this attitude towards classification can be seen in another of Höller's projects where he played a role that had apparently very little to do with art. While for Japan Congo he worked with other people's art and transformed himself into a curator, in The Double Club –a working disco, restaurant and club in London that he ran for six months between 2008 and 2009 –Höller acted as impresario and ringmaster. Split between North and South, between Africa and Europe, The Double Club served Congolese and European food that customers chose from two identical menus. The space itself was divided into a European section and a Congolese section, and the DJ alternated Western hits with African rhythms, the public dancing on a slowly rotating floor that made one revolution per hour.
The characteristic ideas of Höller's work –hallucinations, anamorphoses and distortions– were staged in a real space, so the public could participate in it without necessarily realising they were part of an artwork. As in much of his work, Höller's sculpture literally unfolds around the spectator. But in The Double Club, the experiment was still more complex because – as in Japan Congo – the idea of distortion was applied not only to the physical spaces, but also to the cultural dimension. The Double Club was an experiment in cultural integration which left no room for any kind of fusion or hybrid. Rather, it was a form of juxtaposition and contrast that staged a succession of independent fragments and splinters, with expressions of African and European culture following on from one another.
Inevitably, some have seen in The Double Club a form of exoticism that is typical of Western culture's approach towards Africa. In reality, Höller's social sculptures are experiments in a more or less forced kind of coexistence, exercises in cultural collage. Furthermore, both Japan Congo and The Double Club (a small fragment of which is currently on show at the Prada Foundation's Venice branch in Ca' Corner della Regina) owe more to the impressions of Africa by the proto-Surrealist poet Raymond Roussel than to post-colonial studies. Höller's Africa is a literary, invented Africa, a place of the soul rather than a social and geographical reality. Like Roussel, who went to Africa yet never left his hotel room, Höller has travelled the African continent regularly since the '90s, first in Benin, then in Congo, and now every six months – like a migratory bird – in Ghana, where he is building a house that will be half home and half sculpture. In this fresh experimental environment, the artist will find that he is his own guinea pig. Massimiliano Gioni, Art curator and critic