One night this summer, the Spanish city of Santander went to sleep a low-key beach town and awoke the next morning as the next international arts destination. The cause of the overnight metamorphosis? The long-awaited opening of Centro Botín, housed in a sparkling new Renzo Piano–designed building along the waterfront in the city’s urban center.
With the transformation of neighboring Bilbao in mind—its famed Guggenheim by Frank Gehry opened 20 years ago—local arts and education institution Fundación Botín tasked Piano with constructing a space that would generate international excitement while maximizing the art center’s place in public life. It’s no surprise, then, that the center’s curators would pick a master of immersion and spectator participation, Belgian artist Carsten Höller, to inaugurate the exhibition program.
The show, his first in Spain, took up the institution’s second floor with 14 works, half of them produced or updated specifically for the site. “If you read the space, understand its language, and find a way to communicate with it, very often it’s to the benefit of both,” Höller says of the relationship between artwork and museum.
Höller was in town to lead one of the foundation’s two-week Visual Arts Workshops at Villa Iris, a renovated summer home from 1913 located a 10-minute drive from the new arts center. Since 1994, Fundación Botín has been hosting these events, bringing young artists to Santander to work closely with exceptional international talents such as Joan Jonas, Jannis Kounellis, Mona Hatoum, and Juan Uslé.
We sat down with Höller to discuss the new arts center, his exhibition there, and the recent workshop he dedicated (as always) to the intersection of art and play. Find the extended interview with the artist below the video.
The show is called “Y,” and the exhibition is planned in that shape. Tell us why.
A title for me is not an artwork, it is something that has a certain function, and the function is not to put something into context but to give a certain tone, or note, or color. We—me and curators Vicente Todolí and Udo Kittlemann—decided on the letter Y because, as you say, it describes the layout of the show. It is like a pathway. I wanted to emphasize the fact that this is an exhibition you can walk through. But then, of course, in Spanish “Y” means “and,” and in English, “why.” I like that the letter here has different connotations.
It’s no coincidence you were chosen to inaugurate this space: Much of Renzo Piano’s design for Centro Botín is about including the public, and the public plays a key role in your work. How do the space and your exhibition interact?
These landmark buildings in the last twenty years or so have become very sculptural, they are artworks in themselves. [Centro Botín] is a completely new space so I wanted to keep it as new. I didn’t want to make it “dirty,” to take away its virginity by making holes in the walls and putting nails or screws, hanging up things, building walls…. At the same time, I am building my own architecture in the exhibition space by choosing works that are meant to be walked through, on, or under. I wanted to create my own world.
What aspects of the space did you take into account when selecting work for the exhibition?
The selection of works has to do with the very specific situation of being in a magnificent surrounding—you have this wonderful view over the bay. The “Elevator Bed” (2010)[which visitors can arrange to sleep in after hours] becomes different at night, because you are all alone: you have access to it in exclusivity and I think that produces a very different experience. Plus, it is my personal conviction that you are most receptive to the non-verbal side of art when you are in a state which is not fully awake. The “Bed” got booked in a matter of minutes, they told me. I will have the chance to sleep in it on Saturday [September 9], which I am looking forward to, because I have never slept in it.
There are a couple of invisible works in the show, including “Smell of My Father” (2017) and “Smell of My Mother” (2017).
I like the idea of smell works. Here it makes special sense for the “Y”: You have my father on one side and my mother on the other side. I wanted to give this connotation to the exhibition, this reproductive aspect. It can read like a chromosome, and also be a picture for ovaries or the female body. Also, the other works are so heavy and so constructed: so much material, steel and glass.… I thought it would be nice to create something light and immaterial, but still powerful and somehow unconscious. We worked with a company in Barcelona to help us recreate these smells based on samples. My father died in 2005 and we sent them the cap he always had on, and from my mother, a scarf. It is very unscientific but I still think it works very nicely.
“Seven Sliding Doors Corridor”  is a new work Centro Botín commissioned, and it will remain as part of the permanent collection. Can you explain the idea behind it?
It is the proposition of seeing yourself—the idea you have of yourself—in a mirror, and having it constantly torn apart. You approach a sliding door, which is mirrored, and as you come closer, it opens, so your image disappears. But behind it there are other mirrored doors, and more images of yourself. So at the same time that it tears you apart, it produces a new image of you again and again. It becomes especially interesting if you see another person coming from the other side—you really feel that somehow you are part of this other body. It is almost like an out-of-body experience.
Does your work exist without the public intervention? What is your role in this game you propose?
I am not an observer, I am not watching, I don’t care really. The main idea is that you have very specific experiences in the space. It is not possible to just look at an image and understand how, for instance, “Sliding Doors” works, or what it would be like to sleep in the “Elevator Bed,” or what happens if you take one of these pills [in “Pill Clock” (2011–2005)]. You have to actually be physically present and expose yourself. I think that is when exhibitions make sense: when you can experience something quite unique—because there is no other place we can do this—and also experience it with other people.
Your workshop program, with curator Stefanie Hesser, offered at Villa Iris is based on games. What will you be doing with the 13 artists?
I don’t teach art, really. I am often reluctant to go to an art academy. When they ask, “Do you want to be a professor?” I say, “No thank you,” because I don’t think it is necessary. It can be as good as it can be bad.
I published a book in 1998 called Spiele Buch. It is about games you can play alone, games you can play alone with other people that don’t know you are playing with them, games that can be played by two people, [etc.]. I have been collecting new games over the last [several] years and we are developing new games with the participants of the workshop that will be documented in the English edition of the book, which we want to publish after the workshop.
What do you want to achieve with these 13 artists?
I want to propose a new form of art. I and my friend Daniel Birnbaum, the director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, have been discussing the idea of what we call “unsaturated art,” based on the work of philosopher and magician Gottlob Frege. Frege [established] a difference between a function and a sentence. For instance, you can say “Aristotle was a human being.” That’s a full sentence, and you can compare it to a “conventional artwork” like a finished sculpture in an exhibition. But a function would be “being a human,” which doesn’t have the same degree of “finished-ness.” It needs to bring in the user—the experience of another person.
The games that we work with here have the potential to be “unsaturated” artworks because they are really just propositions, functions so to say. Some of them are completely unplayable, some are very mean to people, or surreal, or involve a lot of personal commitment. So it is really about opening up a field of possibilities, still with the aim of creating a unique situation where people are very important.