Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

I Am Part of The Florence Experiment at Palazzo Strozzi

I climbed up the temporary stairs to the height of the third floor balustrade, settled into the giant tube with a cloth underneath me, and hurdled myself down 20 meters, through 50 meters of metal tubing, in 15 seconds. It was about 1.5 seconds into this, when I started picking up speed, that my brain asked myself “what the f*ck are you doing” and I started to scream, involuntarily. The path down Carsten Höller’s slide at Palazzo Strozzi is bumpier and faster than I expected. Before going in, I was focused on the cute bean plant that was strapped to my chest, talking to it and protecting the cute little guy. I was excited to be taking part in The Florence Experiment, and didn’t think it would have any physical effect on me at all.

The slide from below

The slide from below

Before the press conference for this contemporary art experience, I purposefully did not read up on The Florence Experiment at Palazzo Strozzi, a team effort by Carsten Höller (Brussels born contemporary artist) and Stefano Mancuso (plant neurobiologist, University of Florence). I remembered the artist’s Test Site, a series of giant slides installed in 2006 in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall that challenged the very concept of art and made interaction fashionable in contemporary art. He’s put slides in other locations too. So how would the Florentine version be different?

The answer varies depending on if you ask the artist, or listen to what the museum tells you. Fact: the “exhibition” (or maybe it’s best to call it an “installation”) lists both the names of Höller and Mancuso with equal weight. You slide down a site-specific double-spiral slide that Höller designed in line with the palazzo’s Renaissance architecture. That is his contribution, and it’s in line with his previous work (some might say “the same”). Now, some of the “subjects” (aka visitors) receive a 5 day old bean plant, which is strapped to the subject’s chest. Hence begins the part of the scientific experiment designed by Mancuso, an expert who has for years been championing the intelligence of plants. After sliding, you close the little plant in a plastic bag and go downstairs into the spaces of the CCC Strozzina, where you hand the plant over to a scientist in the basement lab. A real lab! A second experiment at this point involves wisteria plants trained up on the east and west facades of Palazzo Strozzi. Depending on which side of the Strozzina you enter, you’re shown either horror films or classic comedies, and your “reactions” are sent through tubes to the plants’ roots.

A display in the lab area

A display in the lab area

Curator Arturo Galansino presented The Florence Experiment as a rejoining of art and science in the city that birthed the Renaissance, and likened Höller to Leonardo da Vinci (apparently he’s not the first to draw this parallel).

“Artistic practises in Renaissance Florence evolved out of an alliance with the scientific world of the time, combining different disciplines. In the fifteenth century, it was precisely thanks to the experimental observations of Filippo Brunelleschi, inventor of linear perspective, that artists were able to achieve the highest and most truthful representations of nature… In Florentine workshops of the day, a wide range of scientific subjects were taught, including anatomy… From this eclectic tradition sprang the universal genius of Leonardo da Vinci, who… embodied the harmony between art and science. At Palazzo Strozzi, an innovative science, plant neurobiology, has been paired with the unsettling language of the artist and scientist Carsten Höller, who sets out to challenge peoples’ relationships with art and museums, assigning visitors and active role and making their reactions an integral part of his work.”

The message Galansino transmits is that this is a new reunification between (wo)man and the vegetal world. It’s also a new way to experience the Renaissance architecture of Palazzo Strozzi, as you can see through the slide and observe it as you whiz by (in theory: in practise, I tried to make note of this, but was more focused on the vibrations and wondering if I would come to a stop at the bottom. That said, see the video above, made by my friend Francesco Cacchiani of Bunker Films for Palazzo Strozzi, where you can actually see the palazzo!)

The scientist who received my plant inside the Strozzina

The scientist who received my plant inside the Strozzina

At the press conference we also heard from the scientist behind the plant experiment: he’s been working on the subject of plant intelligence for years, and just recently angered a group of vegans with his statement that plants are more intelligent than animals. We all know that talking to plants soothingly can positively affect their growth, but I always thought that was just the carbon dioxide we produced. The scientist’s catalogue essay questions “what is a plant” and reviews Darwin’s experiments on plant intelligence. Mancuso sees intelligence as something inherent of life. For him, Höller’s slides are a place to carry out an experiment, and it’s a real one, with expensive equipment to measure the photosynthesis going on in plants’ leaves and the effect of sliding, and of the subjects’ gender and state of mind on this natural process.

Plants labeled for experimentation

Plants labeled for experimentation

Höller, who holds a PhD in pythopathology and has worked as an entomologist before becoming an artist, calls Galansino’s bluff on the whole thing. The soft spoken man doesn’t like the Leonardo comparison, and affirms: “This is not an attempt to bring art and science together.” Rather, he sees “two things being present at the same time, with double layers of comprehension, depending on who you are…”. Most importantly, for him, his art isn’t “about an artist showing his vision to the world but rather a platform for you to interact with and to feel emotions.” The Florence Experiment is not necessarily something you have to perceive as a whole – the artist seems comfortable with a separate duality.

The slide from above

The slide from above

Höller has written about his slides; he’s studied the fascinating history of slides as part of his quasi obsession. The modern form of the slide emerged in the 1860s:

“A reaction to the shock of industrialization, the metal slide was purely visceral, vaguely mechanical and a solitary, not social, entertainment. It was, in other words, a refashioning of the new industrial mode of relaxation. The smaller playground slide followed the same course. As child labor was outlawed and compulsory education took its place, playgrounds sprung up in response to concerns that children, no longer working, needed somewhere to go to keep them out of trouble. Slides, and the sense of vital danger that going down one engenders in the slider, were excellent substitutes for the temptations of the streets. And so, conceived as recreation and mostly associated now with childhood, the slide has remained in the popular imagination as a frivolous thing.”__Source: Artsy, Feb 2018

The slide is essentially childlike; it’s a means for escape, at any age. By providing a means of escape (in museums, but my guess is the slides could be anywhere) Höller’s art critiques “the boring utilitarianism that increasingly governs our lives by asserting the value of ‘letting go’ as something inherently vitalising, liberating and life-affirming.” __Source: Daniel Birnbaum, ‘Mortal Coils: Daniel Birnbaum on Carsten Höller’, Artforum International, vol.45, no.5, January 2007, p.76. cited in this Tate research publication.

Me and plant, post slide

Me and plant, post slide

Do I feel liberated and life-affirmed after my descent? Honestly, I felt a little shook up. I am interested in the artist’s reflections on slides as modes of transportation, and wonder what it would be like if we slid around more. Maybe, after viewing the upper floor exhibitions at Palazzo Strozzi, it would be helpful for all of us to just jump in the slide rather than take the stairs down. A moment to forget everything else and focus on the now, for at least 15 seconds.

Visitor Information

The Florence Experiment
Palazzo Strozzi

April 19 to August 26, 2018
Open daily 10-20, thursdays until 23.

The slide can be used by anyone subject to the physical warnings listed here.
As long lines are expected, reserve your tickest by pressing the orange button at the end of this page (the page is in Italian but the next phase is in English)

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.