Purple Magazine
— The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

cover #12 carsten höller

interview 

by OLIVIER ZAHM & ALPEH MOLINARI 

Life itself: On the question of what it essentially is its materialities, its characteristics, considering that the attempts to answer this question by occidental sciences and philosophies have proven unsatisfactory.

 

OLIVIER ZAHM — We’d like to talk about the revolution of time, the Brutalist revolution, the food revolution. Which one shall we start with?

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Maybe time?

OLIVIER ZAHM — Interesting. So, you created these three beautiful, technological clocks that look like light sculptures, but they’re very abstract. How do you see the concept of time, which is problematic, even in science? A lot of scientists and cosmologists say that time doesn’t exist.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yes, there has been a lot of discussion about this. I’m not a philosopher, but I can recommend the latest book from Federico Campagna, Prophetic Culture: Recreation for Adolescents. It’s about the idea that our time is already over — our world is basically in collapse. This has happened throughout the history of mankind: civilizations collapsed, then dark ages came. These often lasted a few hundred years, like the last Middle Ages, and we know of at least three dark periods of the Middle Ages where people were basically fighting each other, trying to survive terrible times. Then things reorganize, and there comes a new civilization. So, his book is about preparing ourselves and the next generations for the post-future, as he calls it — it’s after the collapse of digital time. It’s about preparing future mankind for what’s to come. The idea of time being a construct of human beings is certainly philosophically valid. At the same time, there must be some kind of time because everything alive ages. If you think about bacteria, for instance, they just divide into two, and you think they would go on forever like this. In that sense, they would never age. But that’s not true because even when they separate into two units, an aging process is taking place. One of those two strains will age more than the other. You could think they’re immortal, but they’re not. So, there’s no immortality, and all life ages.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And there’s no going back. We can go into the future, but we can’t go into the past.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — There must be some kind of biological clock in everything that is alive. One of the big questions, of course, is: “What does it mean to be alive?” Daniel Birnbaum, Stefanie Hessler, and I  published a book called Life Itself, which appeared together with an exhibition of the same title at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The full title of the book and exhibition is Life Itself: On the Question of What It Essentially Is; its Materialities, its Characteristics, Considering that the Attempts to Answer this Question by Occidental Sciences and Philosophies Have Proven Unsatisfactory. The book contains no images, just extracts from different texts from all disciplines, and they’re all telling you about what life is. We can summarize it in saying that there is no such concept. Life can’t be defined in a way that would be all-encompassing for everything alive. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, as soon as you speak about time, you end up speaking about life.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yes, that’s a crucial point. Time is life. That’s the only way to deal with it. And then there’s our way to measure time, which I think all life has to do — measure time in terms of seasons or units. There’s the revolution of the Earth; it takes a whole year to turn around the sun. Then we have the months that we divide the year into, based on the lunar cycle — but the lunar cycle is not 12; it’s 12.37. That’s why we have these tricky months, and February is short. The history of the calendar is very interesting because it’s been a mess for a long time. People didn’t know how to measure time in a predictable way. During the French Revolution, both the calendar and the clock were reinvented. My work Decimal Clock is based on the idea that time is a definition, and you can basically redefine it. In 1793, during the French Revolution, they started with year zero. They also had the idea to have only 10 months. I think the weeks were also of equal length. But, interestingly, they also thought: “Why do we have 24 hours with 60 minutes and 60 seconds? We might as well do 10 hours with 100 minutes each and 100 seconds.” That’s what they tried to implement. And, of course, it led to utter chaos. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — If we get out of the natural rhythm, time becomes abstract, like in your sculptures. And then we’re lost.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yes and no. Decimal Clock looks like an abstract artwork, but it’s actually a functioning decimal clock. The neon rings are counting 10 hours and 100 minutes. Midnight is the same for both decimal time and our time. The idea to change the revolution of time, turning around the clock, is very beautiful. It’s also a proposition for another form of life because if you time your life differently, your life will be different. Coming back to what I said about life, we all have an inner clock that makes us age and eventually die, but nobody knows how that clock really works. It’s a scientific enigma. Some older people with an unhealthy lifestyle do blood transfers from young people who live a healthy life — they’re basically tricking their biological clock. Or with stem cells. It seems to work to some extent.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, we’re a clock.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — We contain a clock that makes us, yes. This clock makes us grow and start to speak and become who we are, and then it makes us die. It’s probably the biggest influencing factor in our life. And these are the things that I like, the enigmatic things, the things we don’t understand.

ALEPH MOLINARI — These works are also a way of speaking about revolution as a break in time because they are linked, as you were saying, to the idea that every end of an important era has a new way of measuring time. Is that also part of your work?

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yes, it is. Because it’s proposing a revolution as an idea, in the sense that it could all be very different, and maybe you only need to change the time. If you look at human ways of being all over the Earth and throughout time, you’ll see that we have done things very differently, depending on what kind of civilization we are or have been in. This means that we can also do things very differently with regard to what hasn’t been done yet. So, the potential for revolution is certainly there, but as long as there’s no formula for it or an apocalyptic event happening, there’s little need for it. Change — the constant, gradual change that everything is subjected to — is actually a pretty conservative force.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And the way we obey time is becoming more and more authoritarian. We are increasingly under the pressure of time. So, maybe abolishing time would mean killing the monster?

CARSTEN HÖLLER — I totally agree with you. Efficiency as a result of better and ever more efficient time organization results in restlessness. Michel Siffre, a speleologist, did an amazing experiment in the ’60s or ’70s. He went down into a cave, took no clues whatsoever about time, and stayed there six months. He had no clue what time it was. He also measured his sleeping and waking patterns. We have what is called a circadian rhythm, which is basically adjusting to the daylight that we experience; it’s inbuilt. It’s more than 12 hours — it’s roughly 13 hours, strangely, so it has to be corrected all the time with the time we experience, the daylight. But after a while, he started to get into completely different patterns. He sometimes slept for 48 hours in a row, and then he was awake for 72 hours without sleeping! And he didn’t know because he had no clock. This means basically that you can revolutionize yourself against this idea of day and night and the calendar and everything repetitive in time by taking the clock away. That would be an automatic revolution because people wouldn’t know anymore how to measure what is perceived as normality.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re saying that time is the biggest mystery, but it’s also the biggest revolution possible.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yes, and it’s beautiful because it has the revolution around the year and this idea that it’s perpetually coming back. Here, it’s seasons — they’re always repeated. There are two main ideas about time. One is the idea of continuous repetition, and that’s the revolution, in the other sense of the word. And then there’s the idea of time as an evolution, something that moves and changes and is never the same again. These two concepts are in principle conflicting, and the calendar is a way to reconcile them. It’s a conflict that we don’t really know how to interpret because we don’t know what time is. And maybe that’s the thing: we shouldn’t know.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The concept of time as pure abstraction… Your sculptures produce this effect because suddenly, if we can measure time in a very abstract, visual way, then we have to reconsider everything. We’re lost.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — At the same time, I wanted these clocks I made to be hypnotizing, something you get attracted to, a bit like an insect that’s attracted to the light. Time is taking possession of me. Because that’s exactly what it is. You are possessed by what you call time, in the sense that time owns you, you belong to it. We actually only know a little bit about biological time; proteins play a role, and we don’t know much about anything else. Maybe time is just this internal clock.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Beautiful. Let’s speak about mushrooms. For you, it’s a personal story. Did your interest in them start when you were a kid picking mushrooms in the forest?

CARSTEN HÖLLER — I did that with my father. He wasn’t so good at it, but I was good, even as a boy. It’s a passion, so you can’t really explain it to other
people.
I was always fascinated by these mushrooms in the forest, even before I knew that they had mycelium under the surface that can be very large and that connects not just other mushrooms coming out from the same mycelium, but also different plant species, and possibly other organisms, and they exchange information on what is now calledanthropocentrically the Wood Wide Web. Again, referring back to time, it’s like day and night, in the sense that the mushroom comes to the daylight because it’s coming out of the soil. Then there’s this other side of it, the mycelium, living a rich life in the dark soil. So, for us, it has this hidden side in the dark, and because it’s so tiny and thin, almost invisible, this visible side when it pops out majestically.

ALEPH MOLINARI — How did you conceive these mushroom sculptures? What was the idea? To reverse the usual roles by making the mushrooms bigger than humans or to enter into a psychedelic realm?

CARSTEN HÖLLER — I always thought of fly agarics [Amanita muscaria] as particularly interesting mushrooms because they stand there in these white and red colors; they’re very visible and yet so dysfunctional. To me, they don’t make sense. They’re just a fruiting body that comes out of the ground in order for the wind or a random animal passing by to spread the spores. But why are they so red and white, so visible? Why do they contain at least three toxic, psychoactive ingredients? They’re not defending themselves against animals that might eat them, it seems; they don’t communicate visually with congeners or other mushrooms, as far as we know. So, why? Then we’re back to these things that I find interesting, the ones we have no explanation for.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is the color a camouflage or a way to attract something?

ALEPH MOLINARI — Sometimes in nature, color is also a deterrent.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — There are other colorful mushrooms that you can eat without getting intoxicated. So, I don’t know. It’s more like they’re saying: “Look at me. I want to tell you something.” Then we come to the whole discussion linked to Terence McKenna [an American ethnobotanist who advocated the use of psychedelic plants] and the idea that the mushroom is an organism that wants to communicate with us, and we’re just not really able to understand what it says. He mainly referred to Psilocybe mushrooms, but his ideas can be applied to fly agarics as well.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Mushrooms have a sort of in-between nature, right?

CARSTEN HÖLLER — In terms of human classifications, they’re in their own kingdom. Mushrooms are not plants, and they’re not animals.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And they recycle death.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Exactly.They’re decomposers. There’s a great book by Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life. The fossil fuels that we’re using are actually based on the fact that the plants that died at the time could not decompose because there were no lignin-decomposing mushrooms yet; they hadn’t evolved then. Crude oil is a result of the absence of certain mushrooms: plants and other organisms died and became the resources we built our civilization upon. If the right mushrooms had been present, these plants and organisms would have decomposed and rebuilt into living matter, and there would be no crude oil or gas. So, in a strange way, the absence of mushrooms makes our fossil-consuming civilization possible but also brings it to an end because fossil energy use has devastating effects on our habitat. We can speak about mushrooms for days.

OLIVIER ZAHM — With your sculptures, you create a beautiful tribute to an organism that is between life and death, and which has a very important, vital activity for life. We’re discovering more and more about mushrooms’ power and importance — for the mind, as well, because they can also help us open our mind in interesting ways.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Also because they’re incomprehensible. Like I said, why do they have these shapes and colors and ingredients, some of which are psychoactive or toxic, and which can kill whole families or groups of friends? It’s a mystery. With these sculptures, the funny thing is that they still speak some kind of mushroom language. When I go into the forest and look for mushrooms, I put
my mind on a certain frequency in order to find them. It’s astonishing  how they appear and disappear, coming out of the invisible, and the beauty and fragility of these organisms. And I translate this astonishment into sculptures. The fly agaric has been used since pre-Christian times. Shamans used them until around the 1950s. There are very interesting accounts of travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries who observed the use of these mushrooms in Northeastern Siberia. There’s also the idea that we celebrate Christmastime with Santa Claus, who really looks like one of these fly agarics. He goes off with reindeers into the sky. There’s a relationship between reindeers and the mushrooms used in Northern Europe and Northern Asia because reindeers like to eat fly agaric mushrooms — at least some of them. They especially like to eat the pee of someone who has eaten the mushroom because when it comes out, something has changed chemically — it’s a better substance to take in. So, in those times, the pee would be given from one body to another human being. The book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality really changed my way of looking at mushrooms. It came out in 1968 — speaking about revolutions!
It was written by R. Gordon Wasson, a banker on Wall Street who married a Russian woman, Valentina Pavlovna Guercken. She came from a mycophile culture, and he came from a mycophobe culture. They were in the Catskill Mountains on their honeymoon, and she saw all these mushrooms and started to pick them. And he was like, “Don’t touch them — they’re poisonous!” They understood that they came from different cultural myco-backgrounds. Then he left Wall Street and stopped being a banker. He looked a lot at fly agaric mushrooms and had a very interesting hypothesis about how they were related to our culture. He and some friends also found out that in Oaxaca, Mexico, the cult of using Psilocybe mushrooms hadn’t been forgotten. So, in 1956, he went to meet María Sabina [a Mazatec shaman and poet], and what came out of this encounter is the famous article in Life magazine that changed the way we look at psychoactive mushrooms. Probably this article wasn’t so good for María Sabina and the whole cult of the mushroom because the traditional healers were overrun by hippies. But the article in Life, written by a former Wall Street banker, really changed a lot. Wherever we are in the world, everybody talks about mushrooms now, it seems. Mushrooms are very “in” at the moment.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When we were doing the layout of Purple in Melides, Portugal, Aleph took the top of an Amanita muscaria…

ALEPH MOLINARI — I peeled the head back, dried it in the sun, roasted it a bit next to the fire, and made it into powder. And we smoked that. It has the same function as piss, in that it neutralizes the ibotenic acid so that it’s not poisonous, and it gives you an immediate high.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Quite pleasant.

ALEPH MOLINARI — But if you smoke quite a bit, you go into a full trip, and it has that weird, elastic darkness that you talk about. Maybe your concept of time also comes from these mushrooms that bend time?

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yes. Do you find these mushrooms in Melides?

ALEPH MOLINARI — There are so many. And it’s quite particular because the ground is all sand, with birch and pine that facilitate their growth. For me, they’re a big signifier of a healthy forest. Because when you find Amanita muscaria, you also find other edible mushrooms. Also, when you pick mushrooms, as you were saying, you look at everything else around them — the temperature, the shade, the smells, the types of plants. By picking mushrooms, you learn to decode nature.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — We know about the ones that grow in circles (“witch rings,” they’re called), but other varieties, especially cep mushrooms, make strange line drawings on the forest floor. When you can read these lines, you will find them.

ALEPH MOLINARI — It’s the Wood Wide Web being expressed above ground.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Terence McKenna’s idea is that this is a higher organism that wants to communicate with us, and we just don’t get it. Looking for mushroom lines is perhaps a way of understanding their message.

ALEPH MOLINARI — He also put forth the theory that brain development in the evolution of humans is linked to the ingestion of mushrooms.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yes, it’s now called the stoned ape theory. So, when the apes got stoned, they became humans, so to say. But it doesn’t really explain why our brain got so much bigger in such a short time. Measured in terms of evolutionary time, it was really an enormous jump. Something happened, but it might well have been the result of a chemical factor or a combination with another organism. Mushrooms may have played a role. In his book, Gordon Wasson speaks about the Vedic people, who had something called “soma,” which was something between a plant and a god. It wasn’t for everybody — it was for the high priests and certain people in their society. He puts forth the hypothesis that soma was the fly agaric mushroom. Then, about 10,000 years ago, the Vedic people — who were living in the northern plains, mainly in Asia — moved south and settled in what is now India, and they lost the cult of soma. Their culture is the base of Hinduism and Brahmanism. That is a fascinating story of how the mushroom could have influenced human culture.

OLIVIER ZAHM — If mushrooms symbolize open consciousness, and the artist is supposed to do the same, then your mushroom sculptures are a self-portrait.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — You know, these mushroom sculptures are composed of different species. The rule is that half is always a fly agaric, and the other two parts, or even more, are based on the division principle. So, you divide it in half, and you have two quarters, or one quarter that you divide again. And then you have one-eighth, one-16th, one-32nd, and so on. I like the idea of the portrait. One of my very first works — which I did, I think, in 1994 — is a picture of me standing in a forest in a shirt and socks. The picture is taken from above, and I have a very big mushroom head. You see only the shirt and my legs and the socks sticking out. I’ll show you how it looks.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Amazing!

CARSTEN HÖLLER — That was in 1994, when I started to experiment with these spinning fly agarics. At that time, I made them myself with my own hands, natural replicas. I put little mirror pieces on top, on the head, instead of these white velum spots. They come with a little electric motor. You can put a cable that you don’t see, and you make them turn with solar energy. I thought it would be a perfect way to make people crazy: they go by and see turning mushrooms there. They can’t understand it, just as we can’t understand the mushroom.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But if everyone wants to discover mushrooms and take mushrooms now, it’s a victory. There’s something very peaceful about it.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Maybe it’s an evolutionary strategy of these so-called magic mushrooms. People order them in boxes from Holland and elsewhere. They’re consumed in huge numbers, which means that these mushrooms as species are really proliferating. They were perhaps having a hard time in nature, with all the industrialization of agriculture (they grow in open meadows and fields), but now they’ve found a way to proliferate through human beings.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s move on to the Brutalist revolution. You applied a Brutalist perspective to food.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yes, Brutalism is usually linked to architecture. There’s no Brutalist food or fashion or art or music. We say “Brutalist architecture,” and it seems like a strange combination of two words. If you lived on the moon, and somebody said “Brutalist architecture,” and you had never seen such a building, you wouldn’t be able to say what it looks like.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The word is Brutalist itself.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — It’s so Brutalist. I was looking for a term for this kind of food, and then I thought, “Hey, ‘Brutalist’ is perfect.” Brutalist architecture is very linear and kind of blockish, but mainly, it’s about the essence of architecture. And Brutalist food is the same. It’s linear, and it’s about the essence of an ingredient or a product, and what you can do with it in terms of cooking and making a dish out of it, bringing it to the eater in a way that the specifics of the taste of the product can be explored — this is not based on the common idea of combining one ingredient with another and another and another, playing the genius who makes better taste than an ingredient by itself. Brutalist is essentialist.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a reaction against the sophistication of French food.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — It’s not just French food — it’s a worldwide disease. If you eat Brutalist for a while, you start to long for the purity of the product. You also want to know how much you can get out of the product in terms of taste by cutting it into pieces or using different parts of the product, tweaking them in different ways, cooking them, fermenting them, and so on, and putting them together again. But it still all tastes of, say, mushroom. We did a dish with champignons de Paris [button mushrooms]. You have one mushroom head on your plate, and it’s cut exactly like my sculptures, half and half again, and half again, and so on. And these parts are prepared in different ways and held together by some kind of cream that we make from the same mushroom. There’s also a reduction made only from the mushroom. So, we add only water and salt, but since the different parts of the head are cooked in different ways, and one part is raw, it’s a mushroom explosion like you’ve never had before. I definitely want to start the Brutalist food revolution.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I like that this Brutalist food comes at a time where we need to return to a more sustainable way of life.

CARSTEN HÖLLER — If you stay with one product, a nice side effect of Brutalist cuisine is that it’s the most sustainable way of cooking you can think of, especially if it comes from a local grower.

Carsten Höller, Decimal Clock (blue and orange), 2023, installation view of “Clocks” at Gagosian gallery, Paris, 2023, copyright Carsten Höller and Adagp, Paris, 2023, courtesy of the artist, photo Thomas Lannes Carsten Höller, giant multiple mushroom, 2021, installation view in Saint-Tropez, 2021,<br />copyright Carsten Höller and Adagp, paris, 2023,<br />courtesy of the artist, photo Vincent Leroux Carsten Höller, Giant Triple Mushroom, 2023, copyright Carsten Höller and Adagp, aris, 2023,<br />courtesy of the artist, photo José Luis López de Zubiría Carsten Höller, Pill Clock (red and white pills), 2015, installation view of “Take Me (I’m Yours)” at the Jewish Museum, Berlin, 2016, copyright Carsten Höller and Adagp, Paris, 2023, courtesy of the artist Carsten Höller, Pill Clock (red and white pills), 2015, installation view of “Sunday,” Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, 2019, copyright Carsten Höller and Adagp, Paris, 2023, courtesy of the artist, photo Ramiro Chávez

You don’t need a lot of different products to make one dish, which means less resources are needed in terms of transportation and production. There’s a farm just outside Stockholm — they’re biodynamic, they do special things for us, and we take whatever they produce because it’s just so fantastic. Last summer, we made a tomato dish with tomato water and fresh tomato together on a plate. It was such a success. Unbelievable.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Brutalisten, your restaurant in Stockholm, is quite sophisticated, isn’t it? Brutal sophistication. Can you extend it to everyday life and do a little book of recipes for people like me?

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Yes, let’s start with chicken. Next time you cook a chicken in the oven, you do it like this. You take the chicken, which has to be a good local chicken and at room temperature. There’s a seriously good piece of grease in the belly that you can take out. You put this grease in the oven, in the container that you want to cook the chicken in, and let the grease melt. Then, with wet hands, you pat the chicken all over, make it a bit wet, salt it, then take out the tray from the oven where the grease has melted. Roll the chicken in its own grease, put it in the oven for 45 minutes at 175 degrees, and you have a perfect Brutalist chicken.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do people react when they go to your restaurant?

CARSTEN HÖLLER — I spoke about it yesterday with some friends. We were saying, “Why don’t they protest?” Because we serve white turnips, for instance, that are very good, but they come without anything. It’s just the whole plant. Without pepper, nothing, only slightly cooled. It feels like you just took it from the field and eat it as it is.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Salt?

CARSTEN HÖLLER — Not even. It comes completely pure. Then we had a langoustine, which is also very good in season. You cook it for one minute and 50 seconds, take it out, and put it in cold water to stop the cooking process. Fantastic. But it is also served with nothing because if you dipped it in mayonnaise, you would take away the complexity. Most of the subtle spikes of the taste would be drowned. It would be disrespectful.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, after changing the measurement of time, food, and cuisine, and pushing the mushroom conquest into the art world, what’s your next revolution?

CARSTEN HÖLLER — I’m trying different things. I always thought it would be interesting to create a trend, but I never found a way to do it. Brutalist cuisine could be a new term, a new idea in cooking. It could be something that propagates itself as an idea, like a meme. You go to a restaurant, and you have vegetarian dishes, but maybe you also have Brutalist dishes. I think that would be great.

END

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The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

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