Monday, March 23, 2009

Overnight at the Guggenheim as the World Turns

Sanitarium

(a version of this was published in the German edition of VANITY FAIR on 20 November 2009)

My friend Natalie is chock-full of nuggets of esoteric knowledge. As we were standing in front of a vitrine of vintage Channel jewelry pieces at Bergdorf Goodman’s the other day, she said, “People who are attracted to circles are usually facing an onslaught of madness.” It gave me pause, for I was about to spend the next night, election night, in the middle of Frank Lloyd Wright’s magnificent monument to circular form, on a circular bed, that, furthermore, would be rotating slowly, round and round all night long.

Though it is imperceptible, we are always revolving, spinning, going round in circles, or at least, we are told that we are doing this without our knowing it, that our world is round, that we make one rotation around the sun every 24 hours (which is not to forget that the moon rotates around us) that is, we spend our life in going in circles, so to speak, whether we like it or not. What would it do to the powers of our mind to add a further revolution to our already rotating bodies? Was this the question circulating in the head of the artist Carsten Höller when he made the piece?

Over the years, I had become familiar with Höller’s genre—in 2001, I skinny dipped in his Giant Psycho Tank, a sultan-sized salt-water bath in the middle of the Kunstwerk Berlin, and I bathed in the color field created with the help of his Kiruna Psycholabor Instruments, a Lichtecke, at Galerie Esther Schipper; I’d donned his Upside-down Goggles, which turn the world upside down, and if you wear them for 7 days straight, right-side up. But never had I slept in his bed, no, which was occupied for many years by an artist extraordinaire, Rosemarie Trockel, who, in collaboration with Höller, once created a pig pen for the spectacle of watching human beings attending the documenta, back in 1997. Höller is an artist, you see, who doesn’t dawdle in the Laboratory of Doubt as we all do, passively curious but doing nothing about it. He makes things. He makes instruments, or artworks, if you will, that are designed to provoke a state of uncertainty in the viewer, to engender a feeling of helplessness as a cure for what Höller calls the "disease of certainty."

Getting an invitation to sleep in Höller’s bed was no easy certainty, mind you. He has a wife with whom he lives in Sweden, and a homemade aviary with a large collection of exotic birds to care for, and he is building a second home in Africa. The dates that I would be available to sleep in his bed – in the Guggenheim Museum, no less – were in direct conflict with some “Double Club” he had organized with Miuccia Prada in London. The conjunction of our planets, it would seem, or even the alignment of our bodies in the same hemisphere, was not a matter to be left to the stars. So when he sent me an sms saying “The 4th is now available” I jumped on the chance, forgetting for a nano-second, that the 4th of November was not just any night, but the night that would inaugurate a new era: when American could finally begin to be what she should have long been.

So I packed my bags in Berlin and my boyfriend, for good measure, and began to pout and fret that we would be stuck in an inverted ziggurat, a tomb of recent art history, free to explore the exhibition “theanyspacewhatever” sure, but not free to explore the Revolution and Evolution of my homeland just outside the revolving door. Would there be access to the Internet, a television, a radio? I began to regret that I had wished so hard to spend a night in Höller’s bed. Be careful what you wish for, or so the saying goes.

We checked in at 6:30 p.m. on the dot, via the service entry (how gauche!) at the end of a long ramp. The “concierge” would be our guide and constant companion for the evening, our butler armed with knowledge of this loose group of artists, and an earpiece, a coil that looked as if he was either a member of the secret service, or hard-of-hearing. It was a sign, a portent of things to come, yes, even our Guide was the bearer of yet more circles, a spiraling coil dangling from his ear! But first, we were asked for our I.D. and pasted with the kind of stickers one gets at conferences where they serve coffee in Styrofoam cups. We were then asked to sign a form basically stating that if we stole anything we’d be fully responsible, but if anything was stolen from us, well, tough luck. So we signed over our rights to the ownership of our property (as one-way Obama socialists in our Brave New World), and began the long labyrinthine journey through the hidden bowels of the museum, towards our room, some 8 stories above us. Occasionally Brendan would speak into his shirtsleeve to an unseen Big Brother, “Yes, I have them,” “No, I don’t think so…” Not only were we being assisted, we were being monitored from an unknown party in an unknown room somewhere beyond.

Exiting the elevator, “Ramps six to one,” the artist Liam Gillick’s sign informed us from above. “It’s better not to know,” Douglas Gordon’s wall text told us from below. There was our room, a square bed on a round platform in a truncated pie-shaped nook overlooking a cavernous spiral rotunda. (It was exciting to see that our new era would be ushered in on black satin sheets, another personal first.) Breakfast would be served at 7:30, and check-out was at 8:30 latest. “You may view the exhibition at your leisure,” or so we were told. “I want to see the exhibition whilst sitting in a wheelchair,” I politely requested our guide, who found my wish odd, and perhaps not politically correct, but nonetheless, he complied, speaking into his shirt sleeve to some unknown servant from afar, “We need a wheelchair.”

And then we made our Houdini escape, back out onto the streets to experience “theanythingObamaspace,” or so we prayed for an early victory, re-check-in being permitted until midnight. 9 p.m. Obama had it in the bag, but not Ohio, not Virginia, not North Carolina, and California polls had yet to close. Election elation delayed… ‘til 11 o’clock sharp, an hour before Cinderella’s wheelchair would turn into a pumpkin, we could at last rest easy; it was official, Obama would be our 44th President of the not red, not blue, but “purple” (said Oprah) United States of America.

Back at Starship Enterprise, our butler kept his distance while we quickly changed into our pjs; slippers and robes were provided, compliments of the “hotel.” The wheelchair never arrived and the exhibition looked empty – and I don’t just mean emptied of people – so we began to shuffle our way downwards past a nook filled with beanbags where we could have seen the film Pyscho slowed down to 24 hours, but didn’t; shuffling past a series of Swiss cheese cardboard walls by Jorge Pardo, featuring works on paper from all of the artists in the show (a mini-exhibition within the exhibition), yawning, jetlagged, ho-hum, but it wasn’t until we were amidst the sound installation of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster (the same artist who had recently put bunk beds for refugees in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern), that we truly began to live out the fantasy of being alone, luxuriously alone in a gargantuan temple. It was glorious. We closed our eyes and let our selves be surrounded by the romantic turbulence of sturm (without the drang), wind, rain, and thunder of this tropical Promenade, without getting the least bit wet or bitten by mosquitoes.

It was approaching midnight and Brother Brendan’s eyes were bleary, no doubt he was weary of accompanying our slow steps. José, we were informed, would take over from here, and we would be relegated to our own little hotel nook, but no further. And “By the way, if you want to use the bathroom, you’ll have to wave to José who will be watching you from the lower level.”

“I will believe in miracles,” Douglas Gordon punctuated our step. “I want my wheelchair!” I protested like a child. Brendan relented, at long last, accompanying us to the lower floor where we could catch a last-minute sit-down glance at the liar-par-excellence Pinocchio lying face down in the fountain, Mauricio Cattelan’s cruel joke… “Are we evil” was the question without a question mark writ large on the ground floor. “Truth” was writ small around the corner. It was time for bed, the revolving one, our first restful sleep in “Bamelot.”

Under a starry firmament, Angela Bulloch’s twinkling ceiling was the last thing I saw before feeling the reeling and slow twirl of the promised change. For the next 7 hours, we’d become sleeping twirling dervishes, the pathological effects of which could only be divined in the morning.

– April Elizabeth Lamm

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