This week a funfair came to your local park. These strange hangovers from some remote, medieval, carnivalesque culture, touring from city to city bringing absurd, dizzying, flashing and pulsating experiences to a screaming public, have always amazed you. Not that you participate on the rides but you do love to admire these gargantuan exceptions to normality, with their garish decorations alluding to mythical scenarios.For the most part the fair is a commercial enterprise, charging for this and for that and for just about everything else. Parents get fleeced by kids who just want more and more of what the fair has to offer.
But alongside and around the fair, the local council also perpetuates the increasingly quaint and incongruous legacy of free events for local residents, including a concert stage, plus a smaller stage for young talent to test its mettle. There are also out of the ordinary experiences for toddlers, like ‘real’ animals and hay brought in from a city zoo. But the only thing here that really holds your attention is that tiny stage (the converted back of a truck in fact) on which young people, mostly between around 16 to 23, perform dance, rap, songs, poetry and mixtures of all these. Its heartening to see them, mostly drawn, you suspect, from the most disadvantaged, least privileged and most prejudicially treated segments of our society, but nevertheless pursuing their very own idea of excellence, and often achieving it too.
Evaluation of this art is relatively unequivocal, there’s a strong, supportive atmosphere but the crowd don’t have to tolerate anyone who has not already passed through the tough auditions and forthright judgments that either qualify you or otherwise as acceptably good enough to avoid being directly ‘dissed’ (or dismissed.) The afternoon’s acts provide proof that art appears in every culture in an appropriate guise, but always serves a similar purpose. It is a way in which we can all aspire to excellence in one form of communication or another – even we just become good listeners. Your particular excellence could be rhyming at speed while maintaining the interest of an audience through narrative, wordplay and meaning. It could be hitting a high note pure, proud and unwavering. It could be an unexpected aerial back-flip made from a standing position and returning to a standing position, or just a fluid or mechanical motion of the shoulders that nevertheless ‘speaks’ to your audience.What has always most impressed you about these ‘street arts (e.g. rap and street dance) is the way we have witnessed them being forged as entirely new art forms, right before our eyes, as a kind of necessity, and clearly as a direct response to a certain socio-economic impossibility.
Some cultures enjoy the art of 100-piece orchestras, costing millions of pounds in the training of the musicians and all the other monumental logistics required to achieve and sustain them. At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum you find these kids, really working their talent hard, and with very little external support or encouragement, because without it there is little else to promise them a decent life and recognition of their personal contribution in what is still a shockingly socially divisive, hugely unjust, imbalanced, and – t has to be said – largely oblivious society. But they can still reach for the heights of achievement; for a way out of and beyond their inauspicious start in life; a way through the thousand-fold doors closed to them but which open oh-so easily for certain others. They can try, and they try extremely hard, even if all they have to sponsor and promote them is their own body, the back of a truck and a PA system, paid for on this one special day of the year, by a local council whose own resources are dwindling under the rule of Neoliberal economics doled out by a Right Wing government.
A few days later and your teaching role takes you to the Hayward Gallery on London’s Southbank to experience the current show by German artist Carsten Höller. You’ve heard it is a lot of fun and you’ve seen people ‘flying’ in little suspended aircraft out on the gallery’s terraces when you passed by, as well as the vertiginous looking spiral slides stretching down one side of the gallery’s famous Brutalist architecture. But on entering the show you immediately find it to be far darker (both literally and metaphorically) than you expected. Feeling your way through an unnervingly pitch black, complex, twisting tunnel seems to take an age before finally delivering you into the familiar, illuminated space of the Hayward. There you meet a giant circling contraption that uses gears, chains and cogs to turn giant red and white spotted mushroom sculptures, bringing to mind Alice’s adventures in Wonderland or hippy halucinogenics.
Stepping on you encounter an enormous pool of –again red and white – pill capsules which, on closer inspection, are dropping through the ceiling on to the floor at a rate of one every few seconds. Soon you are queuing to use a virtual reality headset that immerses your senses in what looks like a winter night-walk through a snow-laden coniferous wood. Then there are special spectacles that turn the world upside down and thus disable the normal connections between your eyes, your tummy and your feet. It’s all but impossible to walk and slightly nauseating to even try. There are several other smaller pieces in the show, rooted in play but all of which also seem to have a similarly sinister side to them. Out on the balcony overlooking Waterloo Bridge people queue to be securely strapped into the aforementioned flying machines, but once airborne they look strangely un-enthused and under-awed by the experience, while the amount of webbing, strapping and headgear they wear to ensure their safety makes the exhibit look a little like some arcane therapy, perhaps gleaned from a missing chapter of Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain.’
If the emotions you have accumulated by now amount to a slightly soured, put-upon feeling, you can at least look forward to the fact that you are now at the highest point of the building and the end of the show and the fastest way to exit is by the (again aforementioned) spiralling slide. An assistant prepares you as you position yourself on your cloth seat. When the cross your arms over your chest you feel like you have delivered yourself to a euthenasia clinic, and perhaps this wouldn’t be a bad way to end it all if it comes to that. With a gentle push you’re off, hurtling through a tightly curling aluminium tube. But even this is not as much fun as you’d anticipated. The modular construction of the cylindrical form seems to make you bump rhythmically against it, all the way down to the crash pad, and so, just as when you entered through that opaque tunnel, you could be forgiven for thinking you are being treated like an inanimate object, a parcel perhaps, with a primarily utilitarian purpose in this world, and no higher rights or greater status.
Thus Carsten Höller succeeds in making art out of fun, only for art to inevitably expose fun’s dark and even slightly sickly underbelly. But this is not unusual. You cast your mind back to the funfair in your local park. That too was infused with Victoriana, grotesque forms and garish decorations, as well as undulating surfaces, vehicles that crash and sirens that sound, there was a a ‘Fun’ House which, as with practically all the ‘rides’, made participants scream as much as laugh. Freud was clearly aware of this ambiguous, even contradictory and somehow fundamental aspect of human nature, the laughter that emits from a teeth-baring hollow of an open mouth, and the sense that laughter is always, in one way or another, evidence of the proximity of fear.