What does a plant feel when strapped to a human being and sailing down a lengthy slide? With his new installation, “The Florence Experiment,” the Belgian-born artist Carston Höller aims to find out. He began by constructing a coiling pair of 60-foot slides, along with a neurobiology laboratory stocked with pea seedlings, inside the museum at Florence’s 15th-century Palazzo Strozzi.
It will be his first investigation into the vegetable kingdom. Opening to the public this week, the exhibition brings scientifically inspired contemporary art to the Renaissance city, where the union of art and science first flourished. But Höller, a former entomologist, sees this installation as an artistic retort to the dominance of science. “Where science is limited, art can open new doors of understanding,” he says.
Set in the interior courtyard of the Strozzi, the curves of the steel chutes provide a striking contrast to the symmetrical Renaissance arches of the centuries-old palazzo. The museum allows visitors to descend the slides, but with their intimidating height and pitch, a touch of courage is required. Brave visitors careen down 160 feet of pirouetting tubes, a few chosen ones with a plant strapped to their torso.
Carsten Höller’s 60-foot-tall slides coil around each other in the arcaded courtyard of Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi
“I like the idea of the exhibition as a public place,” Höller tells me, standing just beyond the slides. He is best known for sense-warping installations in which people become both observers and guinea pigs. His isolation tanks, nightclubs, swing rides, slides and other experiential works are what he calls “unsaturated art,” a term borrowed from the 19th-century logician Gottlob Frege to explain a participatory kind of art that continues to take on new significance as people engage with it. “The unsaturated artwork is meaningless without subjects,” says Höller. “It’s unfinished.”
Arturo Galansino, the director of Palazzo Strozzi, says that his mission is to bring “contemporary art to everyone, really everyone, in a city monopolised by Renaissance art.” He saw the perfect draw in Höller’s popular slides, which have figured in the artist’s work for two decades. Built over the course of a month, the Florence editions were painstakingly installed without drilling any holes into the historical building, with steel girders that encircle but don’t impinge upon its antique frame.
On the top floor of Palazzo Strozzi, I ready myself at the mouth of a slide. The first drop is steep, and I yelp helplessly, swiftly picking up speed and losing all command of my body. The sky and the windowed walls of the palazzo become a kaleidoscopic jumble of flashes seen through the slide’s transparent top — a hallucinogenic effect common to Höller’s creations. After the 15-second journey, a lightheaded delirium of adrenaline kicks in; I’m overcome with the unreasonable urge to hug strangers while I stagger amid the crowds and Corinthian columns of the first floor.
Visitors can take the high-speed plunge from the top floor with the company of a pea plant, a dizzying experience that can induce fear, euphoria, or both.
What voodoo the experience might work on a baby pea plant is a mystery, but in the basement, lab-coated researchers wire up the seedlings to gas-tracing analysis machines, crosschecking the results against plants that remained stationary. On the same floor, two small cinemas — one for horror film clips, the other for comedy — funnel air and the olfactory signals of the audience’s emotions toward separate outdoor plantings of wisteria vines, in order to track their growth over the summer months ahead. These experiments were formulated with Höller’s collaborator on the exhibition, Stefano Mancuso, a Florence-based neurobiologist researching the intelligence of plants. He posits that the vegetable kingdom possesses “a different sort of awareness that’s still very mysterious to us.”
But, Höller is quick to clarify, “‘The Florence Experiment’ is an art show, not a scientific study. It’s a proposition to rethink our understanding of things.” For his work in the past, Höller has grown mushrooms and herded animals into galleries, in order to explore our incomprehension of other beings’ existence. “We think human consciousness is the highest thing on earth,” Höller says, “but we’re not even capable of understanding the lives of plants.”
Open through August 26, palazzostrozzi.org.
Subscribe to our newsletter