Enigmatic sculptor Gregor Schneider makes rooms. Rooms you don’t want to spend more than a few moments in. Rooms that make you feel uneasy, disturbed. Frightened, even… Gareth Harris investigates.
Let’s get one thing straight: Gregor Schneider is not a modern-day Grim Reaper. Well, two things straight: he is not a modern-day Grim Reaper, and neither is he a headline-grubbing shock tactician. In fact, for someone whose art relentlessly explores fear and destruction – and, yes, mortality – Schneider is actually rather good company. He’s not the sort of person you would traditionally describe as a barrel of laughs – the intense stare and black polo-neck don’t help – but he is warm, polite and friendly to a fault. Last Spring, however, the unassuming German artist caused a media feeding frenzy when the red-tops jumped on his plans to “liberate death from its taboo, to make it a positive experience, like the birth of a child” by displaying a real person dying in an art gallery, a project he dubs The Dying Room. Schneider chose to answer his critics – who accused him, among less polite things, of failing to understand the idea of art as metaphor and missing the entire point made by Duchamp and his urinal – with a 1300-word column in The Guardian.
The 39-year-old has in fact wanted to show a person passing away since 1996. A Düsseldorf-based private doctor has now agreed to help find volunteers willing to die in public in the name of art while the Haus Lange Museum (a modernist villa designed by Mies Van der Rohe) is Schneider’s venue of choice. “My aim is to show the beauty of death,” he insists. “I’m advocating enlightenment on the subject and a turn away from apocalyptic visions… In Germany, the reality of dying in clinics, in intensive care units and operating theatres is horrible. Fifty percent of humans die there in ‘public’ surrounded by strangers. Dealing with death my way can help dispel the fear. I reckon that an artist can build humane rooms for death where people can die in a dignified, protected way.”
It’s fair to say that some of Schneider’s other rooms have been less benign in intent. He has been building rooms-as-art since he was sixteen years old. After his father’s death, Schneider began to turn the family home in Rheydt, Mönchengladbach, into Haus u r, his first installation. It’s a project that has dominated his creative life ever since. Over the decades – by obsessively layering walls on walls, removing mod-cons, inserting dead-end corridors and sealing windows – he has painstakingly converted this nondescript chunk of suburbia into an unnerving intervention. Haus u r’s rooms are devoid of human presence, their vacuity underlined by odd features like the black glitterball twirling in a passageway and a cabinet of stuffed animals and skulls. Schneider lived there permanently until 2004, interspersing its transformation with stints at art colleges in Hamburg, Münster and Düsseldorf. And, in the 90s, he began to identically replicate parts of the house in museums and galleries.
It’s not a huge leap to imagine some sort of well of darkness deep inside of him. Schneider, though, would claim otherwise: “Primarily, I am a sculptor, not ‘the madman carrying materials into the house’. I am fascinated by the unknown. The more I deal with it, the more unknown it becomes. That’s the challenge for me, to keep running on the spot.” In fairness, anything approaching evil appears to alarm him: he was shattered by the recent revelation that the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was born in a house just twenty metres from his own. Still, there is no denying that few artists mess with your head as succinctly and profoundly. The Chapman brothers can flaunt their phallus-nosed mannequins and visions of hell all they like; but it is not unusual for a visitor to one of Schneider’s installations to flee, nauseous and panicked, from one of his disorientating sealed chambers, places he describes as “a second skin”.
His forte is banal architectural spaces that develop into a nightmare in which familiar things are not what they seem. Places that you can easily leave, but which still make you feel trapped. The use or withdrawal of sensory stimulants induces a range of new sensations and emotions. For Sußer Duft (Sweet Smell), a show of his works in Paris last year, individuals were instructed to wander by themselves through a series of dark fetid-smelling spaces, entering bunker-like holes and fridge-cold concrete warrens. It was difficult, in the final pitch-black space, not to contemplate horrid thoughts of profound loneliness and loss.
He rarely moves away from ‘the room’ as inspiration, but Schneider’s other sculptures are scarcely less unsettling: a performance piece in Warsaw in 1997, when the artist lay motionless in a corner of the gallery enveloped in a black bin liner, was a stroke of twisted genius (this later became the inspiration for the 2004 Man with Cock sculpture, a lifeless body with a bulging erection wrapped in a rubbish bag). And his highly theatrical design for a new black-hole style entrance to his local museum in Mönchengladbach, is equally outlandish. Visitors must feel their way along the pitch-dark walls of the tunnel and enter a copy of one of Haus u r’s rooms via a trapdoor.
Undeterred by the media’s response to The Dying Room, Schneider is set to develop his grisly riff on annihilation and displacement with his next major work, Kinderzimmer (Children’s Room), at the Whitworth in Manchester. Schneider plans to reconstruct a children’s nursery from the region of Garzweiler, near his hometown, which was razed by an energy company to carry out open-cast brown coal mining. “For the Garzweiler project, eighteen villages in total will have been torn down,” he explains, showing me images of the gargantuan, apocalyptic cavities in the North-West German landscape where houses and schools once stood. “Five villages have been destroyed, seven villages are currently being relocated and six villages will follow in the next years. The surface mining will be finished in 2045.”
The idea of Kinderzimmer, says Schneider, is “to reconstruct the idea of a children’s room” on the basis of photographs made before these villages were torn down. “This room will be built up in the museum,” he methodically elaborates. “It has to be coloured totally black, the walls, the ceiling and also the floor. You have to imagine the following: you walk into this totally black exhibition room and in the middle is the children’s room. You can only see the entrance or window.” The piece is a fitting culmination to the show, called Subversive Spaces which, say the exhibition organisers, promises a “succession of visceral encounters with objects and spaces” by Schneider and other artists with a taste for the macabre, including Tony Oursler and Sarah Lucas.
Meanwhile, though, Schneider continues to transform his boyhood residence. A key element of this work-in-progress is the creation of facsimiles of rooms-within-rooms in the house. Cubbyholes and corners are replicated. He often removes the rooms, brick by brick, and rebuilds them elsewhere. Back in 2001, he won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for reconstructing a maze of dark and unsettling rooms from Haus u r in the German pavilion, which he called Totes Haus u r (Dead House u r). “We had to move these rooms under bridges and over canals,” he recalls, with a beatific smile.
But the more logistically complex and controversial a venture, the more the artist seems to thrive. In 2005, the organisers of the Venice Biennale caused a furore when they panicked at the last minute and refused to erect Schneider’s extraordinary Cube project in St Mark’s Square. The 50-foot square aluminum scaffold draped in pitch-black muslin was inspired by the Ka’ba in Mecca, the holiest part of the holiest site in Islam. A statement by Venice authorities announced that: “It could have harmed the religious feelings of the Islamic community.” Schneider wanted to publish his documentation of the controversy – including emails between government officials and Biennale organizers – but he was forbidden to do so. In protest, his entry consisted of six all-black pages. An incensed Schneider finally succeeded in mounting the Cube at Hamburger Kunsthalle in 2007. “Fear and ignorance caused the sculpture to be banned,” he asserts. “But Cube Venice 2005 was planned without cynicism and with a clear conscience. I could have looked every Muslim openly and honestly in the eye.”
Cube may be considered by many to be Schneider’s landmark project, but the essence of his sinister appeal is probably best understood by anyone ‘lucky’ enough to have seen his sell-out UK debut in 2004, the masterfully manipulative Die Familie Schneider (Schneider Family). Visitors were given twenty minutes only to explore (alone, of course) two adjacent London townhouses. The second interior turned out to be an exact replica of the first: same room layout; same ghoulish settings; same locked doors; and even the same freakish people, ‘played’ by real-life twins. There can be few experiences more disconcerting than standing a few feet from identical strangers wanking alongside you in consecutive identical bathrooms… The moral of the story? Don’t head for Manchester if you’re afraid of the dark.
Words: Gareth Harris
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #17, Feb/Mar 2009