carsten höller at manar abu dhabi


At the 2023 edition of the Manar Abu Dhabi festival, conceptual artist Carsten Höller unveils his latest public light art exhibit, titled Abu Dhabi Dots. As the second installment in the artist’s Dots series, the immersive installation takes center stage at the beach, where 20 spotlights in vibrant colors, follow the movements of the participants and allow them to play a ‘reward and punishment’ game with each other. In this game, initially comprising 14 red, three blue, two green, and one white dot, players have the freedom to ‘upgrade’ their assigned color. Red dots can progress to blue by overlapping with a blue dot, followed by advancement to green and then white. Overlapping causes others to be downgraded by one color step. If all red dots form an unbroken chain, all 20 dots become white. The game continues until seven or more white dots no longer overlap, signaling the end, and the dots reset to their initial configuration.


designboom had the opportunity to see the luminous Abu Dhabi Dots up close, play the interactive game, and talk to Carsten Höller. To learn more about the mesmerizing installation and its underlying significance, read the full interview below.


carsten höller on his luminous dot installation at manar abu dhabi
20 spotlights in vibrant colors follow the movements of the participants | image © Lance Gerber


interview with Carsten höller


designboom (DB): Can you introduce us to your artwork, Abu Dhabi Dots?
Carsten Höller (CH): I was invited to show work at Manar, and this work was very fitting. It is a piece that we have done in a similar way before in Lisbon in an interior space of the MAAT. But here, we are dealing with an outdoor context. We are on the beach because there’s a lot of space there, and it works really well on the beach. So it’s 20 spotlights attached to a freestanding truss. These 20 spotlights react to the presence of a human being entering the spotlight, so you can choose your color. Then, you can go around in the spotlight, which not only changes your perception of yourself but also that of other people. There is a white, three blues, some greens, and reds. Then you can upgrade or downgrade your color, depending on how you see it. If you want to be one of the rare ones, you should try to go from red to blue, and then you can go from blue to green and from green to white. To change the color, you just need to overlap with another person. So it’s almost like walking up to a stranger and saying, ‘Would you mind?’ and then running off!

carsten höller on his luminous dot installation at manar abu dhabi
red, blue, white and green dots illuminate the beach | image © Lance Gerber

DB: I had a lot of young children running up to me and telling me they would steal my colors with a lot of joy.
CH: Kids are amazing! It was very surprising for me to watch them. I saw this as more of a game for adults, and that’s why we have it open at night when children are sleeping, but the kids are actually getting it very intuitively. Did you play?
DB: Yes, I was playing without my group at first, and I had some really nice interactions with both kids and adults.
CH: I think it’s going to be a great meeting place because, although there are so many places to sit down, they all feel imposed by the architect or the city planner. But this work, Abu Dhabi Dots, is like a proposition to go out there to those places when you want to play with other people. It’s like going to a discotheque where there’s no music. And there’s no dance, really; it’s about just creating a situation together.

carsten höller on his luminous dot installation at manar abu dhabi
both adults and kids participate in the immersive installation | image © designboom

DB: The theme of Manar is Grounding Light. Does work react to the ‘grounding’ element in any way?
CH: You tell me about this one!
DB: It was a grounding experience, for sure. First, I stood beside Dots and took in the atmosphere of the game but also the corniche, as I might have done any other day. But there was this new element now, where everyone is invited to interact with the land and the people, in a different way, which I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do before.
CH: I am really interested in creating a scenario in which people do not just visit an exhibition, but they also experience an exhibition in such a way that they very often have to talk to other people who also happen to be there. This is important for me because I have a real problem with this representational art that has to mean something, something that comes from the artist as a kind of message. This is all fine; it’s all good, but it’s not enough.

We also need to be mindful of the evolving dynamics in the art world, which has transitioned from a specialist, insider world with few participants to a mainstream phenomenon. While this shift has its good and bad sides, I think simply producing more representational artwork isn’t the solution. We already have plenty. I believe it’s time to stop, think about our approach, and explore what we can do with the potential that is there. Endlessly creating more representations, collecting art, and building more museums doesn’t get us anywhere. I’ve always believed that artists should have the capacity for subversion and distortion, basically changing things, but mainly on the model scale. Even within the context of a museum, which is essentially a form of public art, we should view it as a beautiful space in a city where rules can be reconsidered and changed.


carsten höller on his luminous dot installation at manar abu dhabi
the light art piece allows participants to play a ‘reward and punishment’ game with each other | image © designboom

DB: Manar proposes to bring together land, light, and art (and then also people). Some artists explored this playfully, and some more educationally or with striking visuals. How do you see the human experience being enhanced with the installations at this exhibition?
CH: So, you’re asking about the impact of exhibitions like this on the people who attend. Well, it’s positive in a way, considering the success of previous exhibitions and public spaces. Take Shezad’s artwork, for instance—it’s highly photogenic, attracting people to take selfies, and that’s great. It goes beyond being just a landmark; it alters the way you connect with it, inspiring a desire to be part of it through taking a picture. That’s the way we deal with things nowadays.


When I first started to become interested in art, I looked at a lot of things. I remember some of the best moments were when I encountered something I couldn’t fully understand, creating a sense of discomfort. It wasn’t just about understanding; it was about the missing piece that allowed me to project my thoughts onto the artwork. This made the experience much grander than it might have been. Art has its capacities, but they are not as extensive as I initially believed. As artists, I think we should focus on that.

DB: How so?
CH: By providing situations, as seen in this work. By offering something that requires physical presence, it goes beyond what can be captured on a screen. It engages not only the visual and auditory senses but also provides the opportunity for experimentation to see what unfolds.

carsten höller on his luminous dot installation at manar abu dhabi
‘it’s like going to a discotheque where there’s no music,’ says Carsten Höller | image © designboom

DB: At your panel, you said you don’t like the word interactive to describe this type of art. What is its essence, if not interactive?
CH: We should really come up with a new word for it! This type of art needs some kind of triangular situation between the so-called representational object, the artist, and then the public. By ‘public,’ I mean the other individuals present. I really like engaging them in my work.
Take, for example, the slides… I thought of the concept while reflecting on Edvard Munch’s The Scream, a great painting. However, I realized that similar dynamics could be achieved with real people, adding a layer of pluralism. It’s not just about sliding down. I think it’s very interesting to observe people coming down the slide and witness the multiple expressions on their faces.
DB: For the Manar installations, there were two themes of exploration: public engagement, and different ways of perceiving Abu Dhabi. How did you explore the second? 
CH: I think it fits really well here. In some ways, it’s a call for revolution, but it’s also a call for cooperation. When all the red dots unite, everything becomes white, so we are all equal. It’s like an old communist dream. But it’s just a reference; you know, nobody’s proposing that. It’s a reference for the possibility of changing things together.

We live in a very hierarchical kind of context, and there’s a lot of segregation within society. So this work, in some ways, does not propose to change everything but rather reflects on the situation by giving the possibility to be somebody else by changing a color, metaphorically speaking.


carsten höller on his luminous dot installation at manar abu dhabi
when all the red dots unite, everything becomes white | image © Lance Gerber

DB: Have you found any differences in creating art for this Middle Eastern landscape compared to Europe?
CH: Landscapes are different, but they also possess an element of uniformity. It’s strange how you can be in one place and suddenly feel a resemblance to another. It’s like observing a person with a distinct character or personality, but the familiarity ends there. Then, there’s something else around—a unique ambiance beyond. I find it fascinating to seek out locations where this conventional pattern doesn’t apply. I’ve yet to discover a place as undefined as this one.
DB: Going back to the people, has the community engagement with Abu Dhabi Dots been the way that you envisioned? 
CH: I just visited twice to fine-tune the programming. However, I think, if the work stays there for a while, it will create some kind of meeting place for people who seek a different kind of interaction. Abu Dhabi already sees a lot of diverse social interactions outdoors. Instead of just sitting on a park bench, I believe it would be interesting to see people visit the space to engage with others through play. Unlike typical outdoor meetings where people gather in groups that don’t interact with each other, this space could facilitate a mix of individuals. It’s literally about mixing things up, as seen in the overlap of colors, where they blend to create entirely new shades.

carsten höller on his luminous dot installation at manar abu dhabi
Carsten Höller portrait | image ©John Scarisbrick

project info: 
name: Abu Dhabi Dots
artist: Carsten Höller 

location: Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

exhibition: Manar Abu Dhabi

photography: © Lance Gerber | @lance.gerber