Carsten Höller's new exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin, 'Soma' examines the mythic traditions of this Vedic elixir. Though the recipe and ingredients for it have been lost, ethnomycologists and artists alike have been interpreting its origin through ancient manuscripts - from such sources as the verses of the Rigveda, an ancient North Indian text from the 2nd millennium BCE: 'We have drunk of the soma; we have become immortal, we have seen the light; we have found the Gods.'
The libation that promised enlightenment and divine knowledge, some believe, may have come from the fly Amanita mushroom (Amanita muscaria), which also happens to be the natural diet of reindeers (and consequently can be derived from reindeer urine), is herded by ancient nomadic tribes of central Asia, and also the source of myths and indirect allusions in tales such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Hamburger Bahnhof, one of my favourite museums (which also has excellent exhibits of Joseph Beuys' works), has divided the space along its main axis into two halves to display Höller's work - each enclosure populated by living creatures such as reindeers, canaries, eight mice and two flies - with one half hypothetically under the influence of soma, and the other unaffected, so as 'to enact a comparative study between the normal world and the realm of soma.' We are left to contemplate which of the animals betray the influence of soma in their behaviour.
In the middle of Höller's extraordinary exhibit is a 'floating hotel room' on a mushroom-like platform, giving more adventurous visitors a chance to fully immerse themselves in the experience of soma by spending the night in the museum. There is also a publication from Hatje Cantz accompanying the exhibition of Höller's works, which explores the written research on soma.
Mushrooms pop up quite bit in Höller's past work. His art typically confronts our sense of the ordinary with whimsy, interrupting habitual pathways with the unexpected. He created Test Site (2006) for the Tate Modern's Unilever Series, with sculptural slides that explored various aspects of the act of sliding. And in 2008 in London he opened The Double Club, a pop-up night club sponsored by the Prada Foundation, which had a dance floor and restaurant that melded Congolese culture with the western experience of nightlife.
Carsten Höller, Soma at the Nationalgalerie, Hamburger Bahnhof Until 6 February 2011
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