A fantastical exhibition by renowned artist Carsten Höller featuring live reindeer, canaries, mice and flies opened Friday at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof contemporary art museum. “Soma” also offers the chance for a limited number of guests to overnight in a bed suspended above the animals for €1,000.
Höller’s exhibition directs the real-life quest to rediscover the ingredient of a mythical drink into the realm of art, the museum says.
The artist was inspired by a verse in the ancient Hindu text, the Rigveda, which reads: “We have drunk of the soma; we have become immortal, we have seen the light; we have found the Gods.”
In the 20th century, philologists, ethnologists and botanists have tried to identify the main ingredient of the enlightening beverage, the ingredients of which were lost over the years, the museum said in a statement.
But in 1968, American banker and hobby mycologist Gordon R. Wasson made the highly-disputed suggestion that the red and white poisonous fly Amanita mushroom may have been the ingredient, and that it may have been absorbed through the urine of reindeer, which eat the plant as part of their natural diet.
With this in mind, Belgian-born Höller, who studied agricultural sciences, has created a massive dual-sided “experiment.” Here 12 reindeer and other animals exist in two halves of the museum’s large hall – one side reflective of the “normal world,” and the other a scene from the psychedelic “realm of soma.”
“It’s about pondering,” he said on Wednesday.
The reindeer, brought to Berlin from Brandenburg’s Uckermark region, are reportedly relaxed and accustomed to human contact.
Other parts of the exhibition include mushroom sculptures and the limited possibility for visitors to spend the night alone in the museum with the live animals. Almost all of the available nights have already been purchased, the museum reported.
Each week the museum will hold a lottery drawing for one free overnight stay, though.
Stockholm-based Höller was born in 1961 in Brussels. He is best known for his 2006 work “Test Site” at London’s Tate Modern.
“Soma” runs from November 5, 2010 to February 6, 2011.
A $40 million Alaska Native collection is debuting in Anchorage this month, representing a homecoming for 600 rare objects, most of which have never before been seen in public, much less touched.
Paul Ongtooguk, an Iñupiag from the north of Alaska, said in an interview at the Anchorage Museum that he is looking forward to the “family reunion.”
The new Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum, opening May 22, will display clothing, baskets, masks, weapons, utensils, drums, games and more in a first-of-its kind permanent loan arrangement between the Alaska museum and the Smithsonian. As part of the unusual agreement, some Alaska Native community members such as Ongtooguk, one of the consultants on the project and an assistant professor of education at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, will be allowed to remove the objects, with assistance from curators, for further study and interpretation.
The artifacts come from the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian, where they’ve mostly been in storage. The initial agreement commits them to the Alaska museum for seven years.
In choosing the objects, which represent nine native cultures across the state and date mostly from 1850 to 1900, Smithsonian anthropologists examined about 30,000 items in Washington. The effort was headed by Aron Crowell, director of the Arctic Studies Center, who has represented the Natural History Museum on the project since 1994.
It was a daunting task, Crowell said when I interviewed him in Anchorage. But he and his colleagues had help. Beginning in 2002, 40 native elders, artists and educators, chosen by regional Alaska native organizations, made seven weeklong trips to Washington to go through thousands of items. Hundreds of other Alaska natives also had input into the project.
The participants were videotaped telling stories about the objects and describing the memories they brought back, and these videos are part of the exhibit, which is called “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.” The videos will run continuously on large screens throughout the 10,000-square-foot, second-floor gallery space in the Anchorage Museum’s new wing, part of a $106 million expansion at Alaska’s largest museum.
Crowell enthusiastically showed off the new space on a cold day in February. The delicate shipments had not yet arrived from Washington, but glass cases — specially designed with armlike mounting brackets so that items can be removed and carted to a study area — were in place and had him gleeful. Alaska native artists, elders, historians and others with expert knowledge will have access to the objects by appointment. Webcasting will allow those in remote locations to witness their interpretations of the items.
“This is not hands-off, and kept behind glass. It’s a community resource and study collection, and we are thrilled to make use of it in that way,” Crowell said. “That took a lot of negotiation.” Many of the objects are fragile, and some needed repair before they could be exhibited.
Visitors to the gallery will see a short introductory film before viewing the displays, which are arranged geographically from the Tsimshian people in the southeast to the Iñupiag people in the north. Hands-on interactive screens similar to those at the American Indian museum will allow visitors to zoom in on the objects and to get more detailed commentary.
In a far corner, an audio gallery, the Listening Space, will run a cycle of stories told in English and about 20 native languages.
Ongtooguk said that for many of Alaska’s more than 100,000 indigenous residents, the objects in the exhibit are already family.
“We talk about these pieces in our families the same way we talk about relatives,” he said. “These objects our like our great-grandparents that are being brought home again.”
Of particular interest to him is an Iñupiag bola, a throwing weapon made of weights on long strings. He said that an uncle had taught him to use a similar one to hunt ducks. “He thought I should know a traditional way to bring in food,” Ongtooguk said. “You throw with your foot, legs, shoulders and arms and should hear a ‘zoot’ sound when it’s released.”
Crowell said that many of the other pieces also have deep meaning.
A parka made of seal gut, from the Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, for instance, evoked from elder Estelle Oozevaseuk a story about the village of Kukulek, lost in an epidemic and famine in 1878-80. A recording of the story in both Yupik and English will play for visitors in the Listening Space.
Rosita Worl, director of the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau and a Tlingit consultant to the center, said that she felt an emotional, even spiritual connection to the objects. “It’s important to our ancestors that they be viewed,” she said. “In drawers, in Washington, no one ever sees them. To see them here is really significant.”
Golden is a Boston-based cruise and travel writer and co-author of “Frommer’s Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call.”
The Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum, 625 C St. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, May 22 to mid-September, closed Mondays other times of the year. $10, $8 seniors, students and military, $7 ages 3 to 12.
This beautiful painted glass lantern slide shows a large iceberg and a ship, and five men on a smaller boat.
Title: Icebergs . &. Aurora
Description: glass lantern slide. Stamped: Newton . &. Co. Opticians. 2 Fleet St. London. Label on top right corner: 11. Hand written on top edge: Icebergs with Aurora. Measurement of wooden enclosure: width 165mm, height 102mm, depth 10mm.
Collection: British Arctic Expedition 1875-76
Summary text: Seascape with stylised iceberg. Sailing ship at anchor and five people in a boat landing on the ice. Aurora in background.