Seductive lure of Carsten Höller's living wonderland

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The Independent Culture

Twelve castrated male reindeer, 12 canaries, reindeer urine, fly agaric mushrooms and two houseflies of indeterminate sex. So reads the list of materials used in Carsten Höller's latest exhibition, SOMA, at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin.

You smell them first. Entering the building, there's a whiff of fermented grass and musk. And then, there they are: 12 reindeer in two identical enclosures, mooching about the museum's interior. They are endearing creatures, with their antlers, bearded faces and big padded snow feet. They sleep, indulge in an occasional tussle and ignore the crowds of visitors gawping at them across the fence.

They don't bother looking up at the giant birdcage hanging above them, which is full of yellow canaries, singing. Neither do they look at the mice, housed in slick modernist playgrounds. The house of flies and freezers full of red mushrooms and frozen urine, are all but ignored by the laid-back reindeer. They scratch their antlers against tree branches protruding from a giant clock designed in the shape of a mushroom.

It is literally a tableau vivant, a living wonderland created by an artist's eye. A pathway running between the reindeers' enclosures leads up to a suspended bed, where visitors can sleep for 1000 euros (£850) a night. It is fully booked, mostly by couples, perhaps seeking earthly pleasure in this heavenly place.

The point of all this, beyond a theme park experience, is 'soma'. Höller has explored the history of this mythical narcotic, which apparently contained the secret to happiness, knowledge and wealth. Poets waxed lyrical about it in Hindu verse written 4,000 years ago. But the recipe has been lost. It is believed to derive from a mushroom (the fly agoria) and was at its most potent when consumed via the urine of a creature, which had eaten the mushrooms. Reindeer ate the mushrooms in their Siberian habitat, and hence their urine was prized. It induced a trance of extraordinary power and insight. Soma was liberation, and maybe it was escape.

Höller's world is seductive. There's a sense of being seduced, of illusion, of living a dream life of false consciousness, where everything has become nothing but pleasure and entertainment It's a difficult place to leave.

Carsten Höller: SOMA, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (www.hamburger to 6 February