In 1993 Carsten Höller shrugged aside his highly successful scientific career to devote himself entirely to making art. Having specializing in pest control, and the way insects communicate with each other, it seems fitting that he has returned to the creatures he spent so long studying with his six photogravures entitled Puppen. With each of these beautiful, fragile looking cocoons—in some cases with a membrane so thin as to be translucent—you feel the precise and systematic eye of a scientist.
Höller has never wanted to be seen as a "scientist making art" but more of a "mad professor". But in a manner quite unlike anything else seen in contemporary art, Höller uses the skills he acquired as a scientist to distort and manipulate his audiences' behavior. In Soma, an exhibition Höller put on at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in 2010, the artists encouraged overnight paying guests (€1,000), to drink the urine from reindeer who had had eaten fly agaric (hallucinogenic) mushrooms. The catch was that you did not know which jar of refrigerated urine had the magic effects and if the magic effects even existed. Höller notes that it is "an open question whether the reindeer are even fed the mushrooms at all: the power of suggestion makes you likely to observe something that may not take place."
There is always this infuriating element to Höller's work—nothing is quite how it seems and he delights in creating a sense of disequilibrium and insecurity. In his solo show at the Pirelli HangarBicocca entitled Doubt, running till July the 31st, he plays with the idea of doubt as a door to open up new ways of perceiving reality. Doubt, in scientific training, is at the heart of research and just like in Höller's series Puppen, we can never be quite sure what is being depicted. Although the discarded skins are rejected dead elements, under the detailed photogravure technique they become hyper-real and loaded with potential.
The pupal stage of insect life is extraordinary for capturing one of nature's most thrilling alterations. Lasting anything up to a few weeks or in some cases many years, pupation is so various and diverse that it is notable that Höller, the entomologist, has grouped them under the vague title of Puppen, as though playing with the notion of scientific uncertainties.
Pupation sees the unremarkable larva transforming into its full adult potential—unrecognizable from its original state. It is, of course, too easy to draw comparisons with the artists own metamorphosis into one of the world's most in-demand artists, so that the discarded skins echo his own discarded life as a scientist. Yet the point remains that Höller simply gave up on experimenting on bugs to concentrate on experimenting on humans instead. But in so doing he has expanded the opportunity for art to examine the way people inhabit the world, through the prism of the human states of uncertainty and illusion.
Carsten Höller's exhibition, Doubt, runs from the 7th of April – 31st of July at the Pirelli HangarBicocca, Via Chiese 220126 Milan, Italy.