Animal Urine – Nectar of the Gods?

The main art attraction in Berlin these days is for that matter probably the most foul-smelling exhibition you’ve most likely ever visited. As soon as you enter the Hamburger Bahnhof, the renowned contemporary art exhibition space which has its permanent set-up, you get a whiff of animal excretion. And it isn’t any kind of sense-simulation, as your view automatically shifts to the source of the stink – idle reindeer. Large, very much alive reindeer can be seen loafing about in the central exhibition space, slowly chewing, even more slowly ambling around while occasionally pinching the malodorous loaf as they go. The reindeer are the central part of the set-up of the new much-touted exhibition by Belgian artist Carsten Höller, who also has an exhibit in Zagreb – The Slide Installation from the Unilever Series, which can be tried out at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Höller exhibited a few more animal kingdom items. In addition to twelve reindeer, there are two houseflies, 24 canaries divided into two large birdcages which hang above the reindeer, alongside eight mice hidden from the visitors, stashed away in opaque parts of the showcases. The exhibition also displays fridges containing samples of the red-capped mushrooms with their unmistakable white specks, suggesting that they could be mixed in with the animal-fodder and fed to the animals. Furthermore, water bowls alongside those intended for collecting reindeer urine, gigantic plastic mushrooms, monitors, cameras… Höller created a laboratory of sorts which should help him solve the mysterious ingredients of the soma beverage, which the exhibition is named after  – ”Soma”. “We drink soma, we’ve become immortal, we see the light, we’ve found the gods”, states the ancient Veda script, composed in celebration of that mythical beverage. Tradition has it that it was a beverage the gods as well as the common people reveled in, bringing them enlightenment, wealth, triumph and lifting them up to divine spheres.

However, the ingredients of the soma concoction aren’t available in written form, so Höller attempts to find the recipe for that exultant elixir based on what myth aficionados have managed to reconstruct. Hence the underlying reason for all that paraphernalia and equipment at the Hamburger Banhof. The American banker, Gordon R. Wasson, a passionate myth aficionado in the late 60s, concluded that the key ingredient of soma is obtained from fly-agaric mushrooms. That’s Höller’s starting point. As fly-agaric mushrooms are consumed by reindeer, their urine could contain traces of that precious substance. Considering that it isn’t a 100% confirmed fact that the soma even existed, Höller’s search for that divine drink serves but a mere cause for conducting a live experiment where spectators are invited, and is additionally emphasized with the entire space being divided into two identical areas, in which an equal number of reindeer, birds, mice reside… what should allow for studying the changes occurring within those beings and their interactions. If you don’t find this exhibition neither credible nor to your liking, rest assured that if nothing else, children will most certainly be thrilled with it.

For those who wish to be a part of the set-up, Höller set a marital bed up on a pedestal where two visitors are welcome to spend the night. A night’s accommodation costs a 1000 EUR and includes breakfast from the Gallery’s cafe. Höller himself opened the overnight stay option at his exhibition, while reservations for spending the night can be made here.

Photographs: Attilio Maranzano