The whiff of the farmyard suffuses the foyer of Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof museum, where couples are lining up to pay 1,000 euros ($1,370) for a night with 12 castrated reindeer, 24 canaries, eight mice and two flies.
Carsten Hoeller’s intriguing art installation, “Soma,” is proving popular enough by day, with a steady flow of visitors, including plenty of parents with children.
By night, the bed that accommodates a maximum of two people on an exposed platform perched above the reindeer’s enclosure is fully booked. The only chance for deer and art lovers to experience a (somewhat pungent) overnight stay now is to win one in a lottery. The next draw is on Dec. 13.
Hoeller’s quest is to recreate the mystic, elusive elixir soma, which -- according to Hindu scriptures -- grants access to the kingdom of the gods and untold happiness and wealth. With a doctorate in agricultural science, Hoeller pored over scientific and religious texts in an attempt to find the origins of soma.
The scientist-turned-artist builds on scholarly theories that the fly agaric mushroom, stored in refrigerators around the edge of the enclosure, might be the cherished soma plant. These resemble fairytale toadstools: red with white spots.
The magic drink, then, is the urine of reindeer who consume the mushrooms as part of their natural diet. Jars of the end product are also stored in refrigerators. Fortunately, there’s no suggestion that anyone is actually going to drink it. (Please count me out.)
Hoeller has divided the enclosure in the museum’s main hall into two halves in imitation of a comparative study in which one side has taken soma, the other not. Viewers are invited to compare the cheeping of the canaries, the buzzing of the flies, the scuttling of the mice and the behavior of the reindeer.
This quirky pseudo-scientific experiment, with its fairytale element and festive cheer, has something for everyone. The promise of an immortal existence basking in bliss and knowledge -- or at least the hallucinogen-induced illusion of it -- only adds to the appeal.
Yet on a gray Friday afternoon in November, the reindeer chewed listlessly on straw, unfazed by a stream of onlookers. The only excitement came when one hauled himself up and ambled over to the trough, pausing to give a hoof a leisurely lick. The mice stayed mainly hidden away in their tunnels, declining to play. Even the canaries were subdued.
If soma is taking effect, it’s more of a sedative than a stimulant. None of the creatures appeared to be leaping for joy or buzzing with enlightenment.
The guests who opt to stay the night are probably glad of that. Their bed is just a couple of meters above the reindeer, which must make sleep difficult enough without ecstatic spiritual grunting and chirping from below.
The 1,000 euro fee for the night includes a nocturnal tour of the museum with its Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol and Bruce Nauman masterpieces, along with breakfast and a minibar.
“Soma in Berlin” runs through Feb. 6 at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum. For more information, go to http://www.somainberlin.org.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)