Gregor Schneider

Published:  Esquire Art 2007 – 2010

Gregor Schneider has returned to haunt us. At the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester he has brought his actual nursery, transplanted the entire room from the Rhineland where it once belonged. Anyone who thinks he might have done this because he was fond of the old space, or feels nostalgic about it and wishes to share his happy memories of days gone by with us all is in for a great long shock.
I was one of the innocent ones who went in 2004 to numbers 14 and 16 Walden Street in Whitechapel in the east end of London, two adjoining houses which were created by Gregor Schneider at the behest of Artangel. You could only visit these houses in twos, having collected two keys at a nearby office. You opened the door of one; your companion opened the door of the other.
Suddenly, you were alone in a grim, silent house. Slowly, you realized that there were people there, real people who behaved as though they did not see you – a woman washing up, a naked man in the shower, another figure slumped under a black bin bag.
The spaces were filled with anxiety, a damp tension, a sense of pure, nightmarish suffocation, and yet they were oddly ordinary. There was something awful about them. If someone told you a murder had taken place here, then that would have seemed reasonable. I was not alone in feeling a desperate desire to run out into the street and take to drink for at least a week. But I could not tell why.
And then, worse, the other house turned out to be almost exactly the same, the figures were twins of those in the first house. Even writing about it more than four years later gives me the creeps. Schneider had managed to create something deeply, almost preternaturally disturbing.
Gregor Schneider has become a high priest of enclosed spaces. He was born in Rheydt in Germany in 1969 and raised in a house close to the lead mine where his family had worked for generations. Eventually, because of its proximity to the mine, the house was deemed uninhabitable. At the age of sixteen, Schneider began constructing a scaled-down version of that house within the very spaces of the original. He elaborately recreated and slightly distorted the very rooms in which he had been brought up. He worked on this obsessively for more than a decade, living in the new space that he made. He had begun with something unexceptional, useful, ordinary, maybe even normal, and he filled it with dread, with an insulated eeriness, made it seem like a trap for people which had been set by a predatory god.
What he does with space might seem silly or banal until you stand in it, and, then, because of the extraordinary lengths Schneider has gone to, and also, perhaps more important, because of his talent for heightened artifice, he manages the sort of seriousness about the poetics of space you can get in the work of Gaston Bachelard or Marc Auge, and the creepy, spiky excitement you can get in the fiction of Kafka, or in some early films of Polanski, or in the work of the novelist Elfriede Jelinek, who won the Nobel prize for her dark explorations of Austrian life in 2004.
Schneider is not playing; he means business in the same way as a moralist might. Recently, he wanted to put a dying man in a gallery and invite the public to come to inspect him as he lay there. There is no need to describe the sort of uproar this caused. His efforts to put a cube based on a space in Mecca sacred to Muslims in St Mark’s Square at the Venice Biennale in 2005 were banned by the authorities.
Enclosed space is essential claustrophobia, a cage for the soul, in Schneider’s troubled, haunted universe. Doors, walls, windows, stairs are things which belong to nightmare. Moving around in a room has something in common with moving around in a specially created hell, a hell with soft lighting and fierce uneasy memories. His nursery in Manchester therefore might sound like hell, but somehow, if you can stand it, it is the most exciting and compelling single space created anywhere for a long time.