What is art for?

    Waldemar Januszczak is tired of hearing that the slides at Tate Modern aren’t art. They’re certainly not oil paintings. Then why are people so keen to be taken for a ride?

    One chap turned up in a wheelchair. He couldn’t walk. So his friends helped him out of his chair, bundled him onto the slide, and off he sped, happy as Larry, grinning inanely all the way down. I doubt that it was good medical practice, but it got his serotonin flowing. In every Tate clearing, people were milling about, comparing slides, chattering merrily and, above all, enjoying the spectacle of other people having fun. This happiness was contagious. Whenever some dishevelled gleester plopped onto the mat, everyone watching would grin fondly with them. We couldn’t help it. Somewhere at the back of the cerebral cortex, in some primitive pool of inchoate cognition filled with early human fun-slime, a sensation of ancient tribal togetherness was triggered.

    It was this feeling of being in cahoots with my fellow slide-watchers that got me fretting about art’s purpose. Others were framing my question differently. They were asking: what is the difference between this slide and the ones at Alton Towers? An answer I’d like to give is that it looks completely different: this is a piece of shiny kinetic sculpture designed specially for this space; it spirals cleverly and effectively through the Turbine Hall; it makes you see the surroundings differently, as good sculpture always does. But I don’t believe that any more than you do.

    There is, of course, a sculptural dimension to Höller’s work. And watching people shooting through the chrome tunnels does bring some moderate kinetic pleasure. But the piece wasn’t put here chiefly to be enjoyed from the outside. This piece was put here to be slid down. So the aspect of it that needs to be puzzled over most fiercely is how and why careering through the Tate on a slide constitutes an artistic experience.

    To answer that, we need to embark upon a spot of time travel. Like those chaps in that brilliant ad who fast-rewind to their origins as befuddled mudskippers, we need to acknowledge what we used to be. The key thing to face up to here is that producing oil paintings is not a traditional way of making art. Oil paints were invented only 500 years ago. Human beings have been making art without oil paints for at least 30,000 years. And Höller’s slides are aimed at a much more ancient region of the aesthetic experience than any oil painting can reach. I hesitate to use the word primitive to indicate the whereabouts of this region, because that has connotations of backwardness. What we are really experiencing here are not different spots on a timeline but different depths.

    Let’s go the whole hog and look right back to the origins of art. When did it appear? Who produced it? What did it do? Some years ago, I spent a deliriously happy couple of months in southern Africa asking exactly these questions while making a film about cave art: the first art we know about. It’s a big topic. But the most significant discovery for me was noting the specific connection between a place and the art made for that place.

    For example, on a boulder in Zimbabwe, we discovered what seemed to be an abstract pattern of intermittent lines cascading from the top of the rock. Someone had incised them there. We knew this someone must have been a Bushman shaman. The shamans were responsible for all the art here-abouts. Their task was to act as intermediaries with the world beyond the visible: to travel to other dimensions and change things. Think of them as supernatural plumbers. By fixing something behind the wall, in the hidden world of pipes, they could make water pour out of your tap. The shamans brought the rain. They made the hunting good. And they did it with art. The sights they left behind, the animals carved into the rocks, the geometric patterns hacked into the roofs of caves, were the plumbing diagrams for their adventures in the beyond. In other words, making art was a form of magic. If you did the right thing, in the right place, you made possible a transformation. That’s right: performance art was invented by cavemen.

    So I knew all this. And I stared and stared at that boulder in Zimbabwe and tried to imagine what the torrent of incised lines might possibly mean. Then it started raining. And from the top of the boulder a curtain of real water appeared, as if by magic, and flowed down the rock, exactly following the course of the incised lines. Somehow, the formation of the boulder, its position against the cliff, had made the rainwater behave this way. Of course, the rainwater always behaved this way; the shaman who incised the lines was cheating: tracing. But this doesn’t change the fact that every time it wasn’t raining the lines appeared useless; and every time it was raining they appeared magical. Which, more or less, is how Höller’s slide works.

    Höller, too, is in the business of transportation. Yes, he could have erected his slide in Alton Towers but it wouldn’t have been art there. It would have been a slide. At Tate Modern, an entirely different context, the slides affect a different audience in a different way. When a businessman pops out of his City office at lunchtime and has a go on Höller’s slide, he is connecting with feelings of pleasure and dis-engagement that are alien to him in his usual daily context. Slides are generally for children. Not this one: this one is aimed specifically at the child within.

    I felt it myself. I’ve never done primal scream therapy, but I imagine its joys are similar to the ones you experience screaming at the top of your lungs as you plunge down that really scary descent from Level 4. Stuff comes out of you that’s been bottled up and stewing. It’s a fantastic feeling of release. I came off Höller’s slide feeling heady. I’d been plucked out of my context. Transformed.

    It’s not just at the Tate that this happens. Underneath a flyover in west London, in a disused factory that’s hard to find, a James Turrell exhibition has opened that consists of even less than Höller’s slide show. Turrell’s stuff is made entirely of light. There’s nothing to touch and barely anything to see. The outside of the building changes colour at night. And when you go inside, all there is to encounter in the best room is a rectangle of mysterious blue light. That’s it. But it yanks you out of your quotidian dimension as successfully as an alien kidnapping. And in Davies Street, just off Oxford Street, the irrepressibly camp Jeff Koons has commandeered a shop window and filled it with a huge blue egg made of shiny metallic stuff, like a giant Christmas globe. The mysterious egg has cracked in half. Whatever came out must have been very big. By the way, where is it now? You haven’t moved an inch, but your thoughts have gone travelling to a very dotty destination.

    So that’s art, reader. Its job is to change your weather. In our banal little world, where far too much living consists of doing what I’m doing now, staring at a computer screen, making low-grade decisions, art is pretty much the last bastion of insoluble mystery and radical transport. What’s art for? What it’s always been for. To get you out of here.