Carsten Höller's Soma 09.08.11

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Carsten Höller has transformed the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin into a laboratory populated by live reindeer, canaries, mice, flies and giant resin mushrooms. The aim of this bestiary is to explore soma, a ritual drink venerated by Vedic priests in India 3,000 years ago.

Soma's origins and properties are mysterious, but it was probably a hallucinogen. A 1968 text by Robert Gordon Wasson proposed that the toxic fly agaric mushroom was responsible for soma's hallucinogenic effects. "Even though it's literally extending the hypothesis of Wasson's book, [the show] is also about a longing for something you want to have or want to find, something that is needed in our times," Höller says. "We long for access to some other world."

Wasson proposed that Vedic priests drank their own urine after ingesting soma, a process that filtered the drug, while preserving its hallucinogenic properties. (Siberian shamans would drink the urine of reindeer, who were supposedly immune to the toxins.) To test the process, Höller has divided the museum's massive hall in half, each side containing identical numbers of reindeer, canaries, mice and flies. Nearby cabinets contain specimens of the fly agaric mushroom, which Höller proposes to feed to the reindeer occupying one side of the laboratory. Urine from the dosed reindeer would then be mixed with the food of the other animals in the test group, to observe how it affects their behaviour – the canaries, for instance, are kept in cages attached to a scale that measures their flight activity. The animals on the opposite side are a control group, left out of the experiment.

For the exhibition's human participants, Höller has constructed a raised circular platform – an "elevator hotel room" – overlooking the laboratory, where guests are invited to spend the night. Hotel tickets costing €1,000 each sold out within days of the show opening – some places are also being distributed by lottery. Unlike other artists who have examined the psychological relationships between the subconscious and hallucinogens – such as Susan Hiller, who experimented the relationship between various paranormal phenomena and dreams in the 1970s, or Brion Gysin's hallucination-inducing Dream Machine in 1962 – Höller is not interested in experimenting on the human subjects who spend the night.

"I'm not trying to evaluate data in a way that you can quantify, I'm creating a unique experience that exists nowhere else in the world," Höller says. "Once [visitors] are having that experience, it's not up to me any more. It's up to them."



Attilio Maranzano



Julie Cirelli

quotes story

It is about a longing for something you want to have or want to find, something that is needed in our times

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