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Scream if you want to go faster

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Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Thrill-seeker Jan-Carlos Kucharek takes the slide of a lifetime

I’m standing slightly nervously at the top of the Arcelor Mittal Orbit in London's 2012 Olympic site, waiting to have a go on Belgian artist Carsten Höller’s slide, and the artist’s just queue jumped me. ‘So what’s it like, Carsten?’ I bark at him. ‘Don’t know – I’ve never been on it!’ he replies. Two minutes later when we’re both back on terra firma, I’m dizzy but thrilled (though suffering from a mild headache) while he’s declaring himself ‘transformed.’

A certain amount of transformation has occurred on my part too; I’ve never before visited Anish Kapoor’s Brobdingnagian Orbit on point of principle. I mean, Barcelona got Calatrava’s elegant, Skylon-influenced, Montjuïc Communications Tower for its Olympics and we got this. Passing it on the train solicits stupefied disbelief from me at best; at worst seething indignation; so I confess I’ve only turned up for the slide. I went on one in the leisure centre bit of Libeskind’s brilliantly angular Westside shopping Centre in Bern, Switzerland, where you can slip slide your way between the outlets before being shot out into a plunge pool – and that was a hoot.

It might be churlish to ask what Höller thinks of Kapoor’s Orbit, but he turns out to have no problem appending his art to anything; for him it’s about making sure it works in symbiosis with the thing he’s attaching to. But when your artwork is nearly 180m long and drops you 76m at speeds of up to 15mph, the artistic intent might perhaps have more, ahem, gravity. To my mind, it was Boris Johnson clutching at curly straws to try and make his vanity project turn a profit that got Höller in, but, truth be told, Kapoor himself invited him to populate his Orbit. ‘I thought it was a novel idea that hadn’t been done before – taking one artwork and using it as a support structure for another,’ he tells me, ‘Where one breaks free of the other like intestines from the skeleton, or making love to it…’

  • Credit: Jan Carlos Kucharek
  • Credit: Jan Carlos Kucharek

Sounds spicy, but Höller genuinely had no idea about this experience other than that gleaned from the other 10 or so slide installations he’d designed with German steel slide manufacturer Wiegand. It’s obviously art: ‘It has to convey aesthetic information – it’s neither playground nor funfair.’ But it also has to be practical: ‘You cannot stop nor go too fast: 30-35 degrees is the best slope’. And corkscrewing 12 times around the sculpture, either visible through the Perspex or buffeted around hidden in the dark guts of its steel tubing, it is absolutely – absolutely – about the experience.

In the contemporary whirl of social media and information immediacy you wonder if Höller’s hit a seam of artistic lodestone, mining the modern need for instant gratification. Why stare at Picasso’s Guernica for half an hour when you can spend 40 seconds inside a Höller? I get the feeling Höller wouldn’t make the distinction – both are about the articulation of a moment, about the rending of human time. ‘The art is something you can only experience in the here and now, it’s that specific,’ he concludes. ‘I cannot explain the emotions I’m having when I’m going down except to say that they are very real and strong, even existential. In those few moments I know I feel absolutely alive.’

‘Ride the Slide’ at the Arcelor Mittal Orbit at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park opened on 24 June. £17/ adult £12/child. Concessions available.