New York’s Guggenheim Museum is eerily empty as my guy Steve and I admire Carsten Höller’s installation of a highly stylized bed, closet, table, chairs, and minibar, all balanced on four Plexiglas disks that are slowly revolving in different directions. The artwork’s sleek, Scandinavian aesthetic makes it look appealing enough to sleep on. So, when no one is looking, we crawl into the display and get comfortable.
It’s not that security is lax at the Guggenheim. This is actually our “hotel room” for the night. As museums worldwide emphasize greater “interactivity,” the Guggenheim has taken the trend to a new, thrilling extreme: allowing visitors to sleep in a piece of art. German artist Höller has installed this wall-less luxury hotel “room” near the top of the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed rotunda as part of the “theanyspacewhatever” exhibit running through January 7th, 2009. During the day, visitors can view his work, along with pieces from nine other international artists; at night, two paying guests can privately explore the exhibit (but not the permanent collection), then sleep in Höller’s installation. The experience (which costs from $259 for students to $799 on holiday weekends), sold out five days before the first guests had checked in on October 25th.
The idea for “theanyspacewhatever” came from the museum’s chief curator, Nancy Spector, who recognized that those 10 particular artists, although not formally a collective, all had similarly innovative ideas about how people could interact with art installations. “They’re trying to redefine how exhibitions are defined and conceived, and how visitors would want to perceive them,” Spector told The New York Times. Each artist created pieces specifically designed for the Guggenheim’s rotunda. Other museums have in recent years emphasized interactivity by installing educational touch-screen displays or even allowing children to sleep over on cots; this seems to be the first museum overnight experience in a piece of art itself.
Steve and I arrive at the Guggenheim on a Saturday, shortly after our 6:30 p.m. check-in time, and Joe, our young guide, leads us to the rotunda. The museum has closed about an hour earlier, and without people milling about, it feels enormous. Up at our rotating bedroom, Steve and I exchange our shoes for the welcoming white slippers and check out the closet/minibar, which contains bottled water and spa products from Malin+Goetz and Guerlain. The constant movement of the disks is a bit disorienting but adds to the exciting surreal quality of the whole experience.
Joe points out Höller’s video installation of a “flying city” projected on one wall—the images come from a live Web cam fixed to the top of a Midtown Manhattan building. “This is supposed to be your view, like the window for your hotel room,” Joe explains. A cluster of futuristic buildings appears to be floating just in front of the camera, rotating slowly, and the New York skyline rises up behind it. Above us is the “sky”: Angela Bulloch’s piece Firmamental Night Sky: Oculus 12, which twinkles like tiny stars.
Then we check out the other artists’ work: a thundering soundscape by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster that sounds like a rainforest during a downpour; Rirkrit Tiravanija’s movie nook playing loops of films that were once banned in the U.S.; a carved-cardboard labyrinth by Jorge Pardo dotted with shapes of plucked, headless chickens. We settle into some beanbag chairs and watch Tiravanija’s documentary about the featured artists, flickering on flat-panel monitors.
Steve and I leave for dinner, and when we return, light snow is falling outside, which we can see on our Web cam “window.” A new security guard trails us as we meander through the exhibit again, stopping to fully savor all the sounds, colors, photos, slogans, and videos.
After we change into our pajamas, Steve strums his guitar, and the guard takes his perch a level below us. He’s visible only if we peer over the balcony, but close enough that we find ourselves whispering. As the time creeps past 2:30 a.m., Steve and I yell down to ask him to hit the lights (fortunately, the stars continue to sparkle), and soon the silk sheets envelope us.
Around 7:30 a.m., Steve and I open our eyes to see the security guard depositing our croissant-and-coffee breakfast on the table. Checkout is at 8:30 a.m., to allow for cleaning before the museum’s 10 a.m. opening. This seems cruelly early, but it’s probably best the Guggenheim has decided not to take the interactivity concept to the next level: letting tourists gawk as pajama-clad guests snooze.