Review Mihaela Varzari
CONGO MEETS THE WEST IN FANTASY
The Double Club in London - a bar, a restaurant, a discotheque, a Carsten Höller Project by Fondazione Prada.
An art project dealing with the clash between civilisations is no novelty for English society, built as it is on fertile soil inseminated with a long running and deeply grounded tradition in multiculturalism. Dealing with culture clash is, however, a new terrain for the German born Sweden-based artist Carsten Höller. Placed in the rather affluent borough of Islington in North London and tacked behind Angel tube station in a warehouse, Double Club is a six-month long art project (extended to eight months due to its success), created by Carsten Höller, financed by Fondazione Prada and designed in collaboration with architects Reed Kram and Clemens Weisshaar.
It does what it says on the tin. It is a bar, a restaurant and a discotheque all in one, a space divided by an invisible line: the bar area is half Congolese, ornamented with plastic chairs and a barbeque, while in the disco space both Western and Congolese food is available and music is played. The dialogue between cultures continues with the artworks covering the walls; a self-portrait by Congolese artist Cheri Samba with a paintbrush in his teeth and Flying City, designed by Russian architect Georgi Krutikow in 1928. The mechanics behind the existence of this utopian city are left unquestioned.
As per the good Western tradition, a percentage of the profit will be going towards City of Joy (not exactly a utopian city), a charity for Congolese genocide rape victims. Höller’s relationship with Congo goes back to around 2001 when he started visiting the country and found himself fascinated by the high quality of music and the power it exerted over people’s lives. Indeed music is the power, as Fela Kuti suggests, the Nigerian iconic musician who also played a political role in the struggle against dictatorship. So, bringing Congolese musicians over to London to perform at the Double Club presents an opportunity to get to know Congo through music, following the Mali example.
As the intention of the project suggests, the audience is mixed. The aloof and arty London crowd is well represented, also students and others experiencing each other’s cultures within this cocooned environment, watched by no less than six very friendly bouncers. Mingling and chatting with random people in the crowd, it seems that the project indeed works in the sense that people are generally having a good time.
Double Club plays a unifying role in Höller’s oeuvre, as it is identified as the driving engine behind a plethora of mediums, covering almost all forms of artistic representation. What becomes almost representative of Höller is the practice of creating a safe environment where danger is present, in order to channel different methods of perception. Double Club is presented as an art project which DOES NOT address more problematic issues raised by putting together Western European with Congolese traditions. Even though it is certain that any project addressing Congo is a strong elicitor of all kinds of projections, Carsten Höller advocates a light-hearted approach and sidesteps the issues raised by massacres, genocide and refugees: ‘I am proposing this model as a situation, where you think you have to decide between this and that, but you don’t!’ Indeed, doubt is above all the main engine of Höller’s personal system of beliefs and artistic legacy. When he initiated a project he calls The Laboratory of Doubt (1999), Höller drove in to Antwerp in Belgium trying to spread doubt. With the help of a microphone and speakers on top of the car, he was faced with his own inability to deliver his objective. He then started asking individuals how to spread doubt, but no one could provide him with an answer, leaving him to find out how to do it alone.
By being an art project which requires a time frame, we shall never see whether this place for bringing different cultures together has the potency of developing organically into a reference venue, like the ones in Brixton, South London, for example, where the existence of the club/church, Mass, has proved the possibility of Afro-Caribbean and Western traditions to coexist through the bond of music. At the same time, by looking around the Double Club with the knowledge of Congo’s tragic history in mind, one might be inclined to think that the point cannot just be these good looking black bouncers, ‘wanna-dance’ tunes, the tin roof of the bar and the smell of barbequed kebabs.
Carsten Höller states that this is a non-political project. However, his art is based on challenging the perceptual apparatus. As the name suggests, the project, apart from being divided physically in two, can have a double meaning. There must be more to it, otherwise the Double Club becomes an unauthentic set design, fetishising Congolese culture and making it palatable for the general public where people’s enjoyment or experience becomes a by-product. Indeed it is very difficult to approach the Congo problematic without showing images of starving children, dead people and raped women. By deliberately not using any of these clichés, Höller acts in a kind of post-traumatic way: he suppresses reality and withdraws himself into a fantasy world governed by music. In order not to victimise Congo again, Höller proclaims a kind of silent protest and throws a subtle provocation in the face of Western Europe. He holds a mirror up to the Western Europeans and delivers what is expected from the Congolese tradition: good music, cheap food, fun loving people.
The Congolese relationship to the West, more precisely to Belgium (where Höller grew up) and the UK has a long and entwined history, as described by Conrad in the famous novel The Heart of Darkness. This book (published in 1902) anticipated Congo’s independence from Belgium in the proceeding decades, and the same kind of flagship was raised by the documentary film Enjoy Poverty (2008), made by the Dutch born Belgium based artist Renzo Martens. Shot over three years, the documentary in Congo clearly states the ongoing colonialism and domination by the West in the shape of Doctors Without Borders, UN Troops and plantation owners. Martens smartly allows himself to be cynical and ironic, declares himself impotent, caught in artistic self-referentiality, even vanity, as he presents himself in the film.
One should take into consideration the double interpretation of Double Club at least for fear of making Höller play the saviour; one who takes himself seriously and has the power to import Congolese musicians to make their fellow countrymen proud of their tradition and restore their external image. He thus brings to attention the problem of Congo, mainly the unacknowledged holocaust and the ongoing colonialism. As Deleuze would say ‘there are not only right and wrong solutions to problems, there are also right and wrong problems’. In our case we are dealing with a false problem, which is not that of Congo having a bad image but that of inequality, exploitation and injustice on a massive scale. The project shows the opposition between those who are born into the culture, completely ruled of it and those who enjoy it. Höller can be self-critical of his role of successful contemporary artist who lives in an aeroplane and commissions his works from airports. He admits suffering with a kind of ‘hysterical production, where one is so busy with producing so much that he or she does not let doubts ‘come by’. Producing then becomes the cause and effect of having doubts, which is the only way to acquire clarity of thought.
Carsten Höller’s work is being followed incessantly by the idea of doubt as a result of allowing oneself to play a double role, of both the subject and object in order to achieve self-reflexivity. His interest seems to be partly determined by his own personal professional experience, where he is educated to doctorate level in phytopathology and agronomic entomology and by his exuberant energy to pro- duce art. Moving from an over-specialised area of science to a very wide range of artistic mediums affected his artistic vision to such an extent that his participatory sculpture and installation is derived from devices and techniques originating in different areas of scientific research. The most famous example is Test Site (2006’07), the ultimate in experimental and interactive installation. These giant slides were installed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London, where indeed an impressionable number of visitors did slide down. If doubt is what Höller is trying to get people introduced to in order to achieve clear judgment, then it is most unlikely to have happened in this situation, since one needs critical distance, whereas the slides are more likely to produce amazement, a state of joy in the here and now. Adding the slides under the doubt-creating artworks would be wrong, as the state of doubt and the state of amazement are two different things.